February 10th, 2008
2007 was a big year for Romani art. And for Delaine Le Bas. She was part of Venice Biennale’s first Roma Pavilion, which housed an international collection of Romani Gypsy work entitled Paradise Lost. Now with a solo show in Berlin, she tells Ben Cobb, “I just want to be seen as an artist.”
With its pebbled beach, 19th Century pier and Formica cafes, Worthing is a very English kind of seaside town. It may not sound the likeliest location for a rising star of Romani art but this is where artist Delaine Le Bas was born and lives with her husband Damian, an artist of Irish Traveller extraction, in a small end-of-terrace house. Looking at Le Bas’ magpie-like work – her intricate embroidery covered in badges, patches and sequins, and her installation pieces made up of dolls and ornaments – this quiet West Sussex spot, with its heavy quotient of charity shops and abundance of weekend car boot sales, is perhaps the ideal base.
“My work is a bricollage of disregarded objects and everyday materials,” 42-year-old Le Bas explains. “I’m constantly collecting. I’d like to think of myself as an archivist but I’m probably just a hoarder. There are massive storage problems at my house because I can never throw any of it out. Luckily my parents have some stables so I keep some stuff there and over at my Nan’s. That’s the advantage of having my family around me in Worthing.”
The family might be landowners now but it wasn’t long ago that some members were still living on the roadside. “As a child in the late 60s I remember visiting my relatives in trailers in the lay-bys,” says Le Bas. “We used to call the trailers zebras because they had chrome stripes on the side. Even right through the 70s it was relatively easy to stop in lay-bys. The main difference is that people are semi-settled now. If they’re not living in houses then they’re in mobile homes. There isn’t the amount of travelling that there was. Before I was small they were travelling all around for work but that work doesn’t exist anymore. For me that is what being a Gypsy was all about: having that freedom of spirit and not being tied down.”
It is this bygone era of Gypsies, rather than its modern incarnation, that has had the biggest impact on Le Bas’ art: “I have really strong memories of all the colours and patterns inside those zebra trailers and of my great Uncles who were big characters and completely wild, in particular Alfie who used to fight at fairgrounds for money. I put a modern twist on that older generation in some of my work.”
The drastic change in Romani life over the last 30 years, from a life-on-the-road to a more housebound existence, has meant that many younger Romanies, Le Bas included, feel forced to justify their credentials. “My background is quite a hard thing to explain to people because most people have a lot of preconceived ideas about Gypsies,” she believes. “The problem is that generally people hold two stereotypes at the same time. One is of the villain, the idea that Gypsies are always up to no good. The other is a really romanticised notion of barefooted women with floating black hair, running around a field banging a tambourine. If you don’t fit either of those stereotypes, which I definitely don’t, people aren’t sure who you are and if you are what you say you are.” Studying fashion and textiles at St. Martins from 1986-88 doesn’t help either. “If you go to college people think you can’t be a Gypsy because Gypsies are completely uneducated,” she shrugs. “It’s an odd position to be in.”
In fact, Romani roots go back to India; their language shares much with Hindustani. But with no written history, it’s not just outsiders who are short on accurate information. “I haven’t got a clue when my family first came over to England,” admits Le Bas. “They were obviously here for some time because there’s a cemetery in Hampshire where a lot of my family is buried. The graves go back to my great-great-grandparents.” What is clear is that wherever Romanies travelled, discrimination soon followed. Sadly that prejudice isn’t consigned to the distant past. “You’ve only got to go back to the 2005 election campaign,” sighs Le Bas. “There were whole pages in The Sun devoted to revoking the human rights of Gypsies and Travellers. When that was going on there was also that Channel 4 documentary, Kilroy and the Gypsies, where Robert Kilroy-Silk spent a week with a Romani community in Bedfordshire. The morning after that aired my parent’s yard, where they had lived for about 30 years, was sprayed with ‘Gypos get out!’ and swastikas.”
Certain pieces like Meet Your Neighbours, “which was taking The Sun’s headline during the Conservative campaign and turning it on its head”, confront the negative image of Gypsies but, Le Bas is quick to point out, that isn’t the whole story. “Looking at my art as a whole you wouldn’t say, ‘She must be a Gypsy.’ My work is a lot to do with other social and political issues. It’s about anyone who is on the outside, whatever his or her situation might be. I’m a strong believer that even though you come from a community you’re still an individual. I leave the boxes for everyone else. I just think of myself as an artist, whether that’s a contemporary artist, an outsider artist or a Gypsy artist.” With her 2008 diary booked up with non-Gypsy related shows until November, when she opens a solo exhibition at Galleria Sonia Rosso in Turin, curators obviously agree.