Family Happiness: Artists Respond to an Anti-Family Public Policy: Art as Social Commentary: A Review of the Multi-Media Exhibition Family Happiness Which Sought to Create Greater Public Awareness on the Czech and Slovak Policy of Forcibly Removing Roma Children from Their Families and Homes

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Discussions regarding the integration of Roma into mainstream society in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and then in a larger sense, their integration into the European Union, has been a political powder keg. Head of the EU Delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden's comment on improving the dire living conditions of Roma in Slovakia provides one of the biggest examples of a political flap on this issue.

In his interview for a Dutch TV documentary which aired on the day of EU enlargement in May 2004 (the day when the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and eight other former communist countries from Eastern Europe entered the European Union), van der Linden said that he supported the forced removal of Slovakian Roma children from their families into a kind of boarding school, i.e., a state educational institution to improve their assimilation into the New Europe.

"It may sound simplistic, but I believe that ... we might have to proceed to, well, I'll say this in quotation marks, 'force' Roma children to stay in a kind of boarding school from Monday morning until Friday afternoon...." he said, with the broadcast cutting him off mid-sentence.

The original broadcast was played on TV screens beside Slovakian news broadcasts responding to van der Linden's statement at the entrance to the multi-media exhibition Family Happiness. The exhibition explored this policy of forcibly removing Roma children from their families and homes in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The exhibition was held at the Czech Ministry of Culture (Nosticky Palace) from 24 April until 10 May 2009.

And while both broadcasts included the common backdrop of Roma shantytowns --either villages or isolated sections of cities mainly in northern and eastern Slovakia, over-run by swarms of children on the streets (or rather on dirt paths amid dilapidated houses)--the Slovakian news included Roma representatives seemingly in agreement with van der Linden's proposal, and they included clips of studious Slovak children looking busy in classrooms.

After all, removing children from their homes and placing them in state institutions is more common in the Czech Republic and Slovakia than in other EU countries. For instance, in the Czech Republic, 60 out of 10,000 children under the age of three are placed in institutional care; this is the highest rate in all EU countries (according to research conducted by the University of Birmingham between 2003-2005). However, the majority of these children are neither orphans nor victims of domestic abuse or violence. Rather, they are mainly children from poor families and predominantly of Roma origins.

These projections were part of an installation by Tanja Ostojic (from Serbia), and the rest of the exhibit included installations, videos, objects, paintings, prints, photographs and even comics from over 20 Czech, Slovak, and other contemporary artists who sought to explore the ongoing issue of removing children (both Roma and non-Roma alike) from their families in Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

For her installation entitled The Roma Question, Ostojic conducted intensive research in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava following a petition from ERIO, the European Roma Information Office in Brussels, which called for van der Linden's removal on account of his controversial statement. She asked Slovak activists, policy coordinators for Roma communities, Roma journalists, government institutions, pedagogues, social workers, NGOs, artists, and philosophers to provide their initial response to the EU decision to officially close the discussion as an "unfortunate choice of words."

Their comments, the aforementioned TV broadcasts, interview transcripts (all translated into English), EU press briefings and petitions, and a film Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) became the basis of her installation. The film depicted the Australian government's parallel policy from the 1930s of forcibly removing half-caste Aborigine children from their families and relocating them to educational institutes, which were run rather like camps for indentured servants. …