In February 2010, British broadcasting company Channel 4 aired the first episode of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings (BFGW). Its premise was to lift the veil on the secretive community of British and Irish Travelling Peoples (mostly Romani) by placing the viewer as guests of the bride and groom.
From the offset, we are bombarded with images of lavishness and excess in manors our good British sensibilities would have us shun as “tacky” or “ridiculous.” From bushels of hot-pink tulle and rhinestone-clad champagne silks, we see female community members preparing for the wedding of their dreams and are asked to sit and observe the extravagant ceremony process from planning to completion. Despite being voted the “Most Groundbreaking Show” in the Cultural Diversity Awards 2010,the show stirred huge controversy among the internal community with heart-wrenching ripple effects.
A private inquiry was launched by the Advertising Standards Authority the same year and confirmed that the series could be directly linked to increased “physical and sexual assault, racist abuse and bullying, misinformation and hostile questioning, resulting in damage to the self-esteem of children and withdrawal from school.” Yes, on paper, BFGW had provided much-needed exposure for a criminally underrepresented community. But in principle? No.
“[BFGW] is all people know about us because we’re so underrepresented,” says Riah Knight, singer, performer, and activist, from behind a large mug of tea. “And we’ve been here for so long. I think actually, now, if you don’t know about the Romani community, it’s a willful ignorance or a lack of interest. For so long, our story wasn’t being told in our voice.”
“Traveller” is the broad-spectrum term for those who belong to communities of traditionally nomadic people who share a number of ethnic backgrounds. Roma, Romani, and Sinti are the most common delineations of Traveller identity and refer to British and/or Indo-European heritage. The differing names have come about due to the diaspora the traveling lifestyle encouraged, alongside years of persecution. As a group, Travellers have been neglected representation at every avenue, despite being one of the largest ethnic minority groups in Europe. According to a 2019 NME report, 10 million individuals around the world identify as such.
I am not one of them—I identify as White British—but I do come from Roma ancestry and grew up on hazy stories of my great-great-great-grandmother, a firm but loving matriarch from a British Traveller (Romanichal) family. Born 150 years ago in Castle Rising, Norfolk, Mary Ann Raynes’s legacy has influenced how I experience spirituality, family, and our natural world. Through anecdotes and minor conspiracies—most notably surrounding the Hawthorne tree, suspected of being bad luck and generally an invitation for evil to enter your home if you let its flowers cross the threshold—her presence was almost palpable. My grandmother has fond memories of playing on her lawn, and we are lucky to have photos showing her holding a bouquet from her garden, while sitting among family.
Married out for several generations, I’ve never felt authentically linked to the community and consider myself privileged, never having experienced prejudice for my ethnicity or race. Writing this article led me to confront whether the terms “Roma” or “Traveller” resonate with me and to see how those labels are used within the community. I connected with more people who understand the world more like I do, and that is the power of exposure. I wish only to place myself as an understanding vessel for more eloquent and nuanced conversations.
When I initially reached out to the Maxim Gorki Theater, one of the world’s largest international theaters focused on identity conflict and where Riah Knight is a cast member, I was intimidated. The Berlin theater, founded 1952, has hosted an internationally acclaimed program of events centering intersectional issues surrounding underrepresented ethnic minority groups. I was specifically interested in their breadth of artistic work from the Traveller community.
When she was nineteen, Knight debuted as a Gorki regular in Roma Armee, directed by Yael Ronen. In this production, the cast shares their personal, real-life experiences with racism and discrimination as Romani people through monologues. This level of raw vulnerability is designed to connect with the experience of the internal Romani community and the humanity and empathy of the external non-Traveller communities.
“The way that show was done, it was very personal,” Knight explained in our Zoom interview. “It was really exploring our identities. And for me, it really dropped me into the frying pan of identity politics, of radical Romani feminism, of the European Romani anti-racism movement.”
The listing for Roma Armee on the Gorki website reads: “At a time when Europe is at risk of drifting into neo-fascism, a group of actors is calling for a Roma army for the purpose of self-defense. A rapid intervention force to fight structural discrimination, racism and antiziganism, but also as emancipation from an internalized role of victims.”
A large portion of Knight’s work as an activist centers demystifying Travellers as a community and addressing the misrepresentation and dangerous stereotyping they face. “The romanticized image people have of us is stuff like smoke and lanes and a wagon around the corner. But it isn’t the reality of life for most people, not for hundreds of years.”
Television shows such as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings—and the U.S. version, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and its spinoff, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding—perpetuate the idea of this broad, diverse community being homogeneously “mystical,” “trashy,” and “gawdy”—all quotes from the comments section on Chanel 4’s listing of the program. Traveller identities are scrutinized and misunderstood. Knight encounters people who question if she’s a “real Gypsy.”
“They just mean you’re not living like a Victorian,” she says.
Regardless of the large population size, the cultural memory and public perception of Traveller communities remains frozen in time. Modern Travellers, like many minority ethnic groups today, are assimilated into their local communities. And, like all groups, they do not share a hegemonic personality simply because they were born into a specific ethnicity.
Practices vary from family to family, but views on family, death, and cleanliness are what differ most from the typical Western norms. Broadly speaking, Travellers respect and trust family, especially their elders, above all, and center life and death around community. What began as spiritualist rituals regarding cleanliness have become a system of values that revolve around respect for house and home.
Knight and I bristle at the stereotype of Travellers, some of whom lived in non-traditional homes, as being unclean. She counters with an example: where many people allow dogs to lick their faces or their cats on the countertop, both are unacceptable by the communities she grew up in. This dichotomy was reinforced by the artless depiction of Traveller communities in BFGW UK, in which shots of littered campgrounds are intercut with monologues from young Traveller girls describing their life of homemaking and near-constant cleaning.
“We’ve not been given the space as a community to self-represent,” Knight says, when I ask why the external world retains this backward view. “When people are invited to occupy a space that don’t normally have one, it might not be what you expected.”
This discomfort with challenging the status quo echoes throughout the lives and work of ethnic minority communities around the world. The colonial global history and Western supremacy that is upheld in society today actively blocks information that counteracts their stereotypes.
The show “might challenge you. It might not be palatable. That’s why it needs to be there because it’s different and it’s radical and it’s changing your perception,” she says.
Premiered in September 2017, Roma Armee centers an array of Traveller identities shared among an intersectional performance group. The set and some costume elements were designed in collaboration with the “outsider” artist Damian Le Bas—who died three months later—and his wife, Delaine, both of Roma heritage. Leaning on designs from Le Bas’s “Gypsyland,” a fictional pan-European home for all Travellers, the set creates a European world clad in a neo-fascistic landscape, unified by the Roma people banded together as a standing army.
On Gypsyland as a concept, Le Bas had said: “From being perceived as Tramps and Thieves with togetherness we can become the Kings & Queens of Gypsyland Europa. After all, wouldn’t Europe be a more boring place without us Gypsies?”
Contrasting natural tones are used to color the thickly lined illustrations woven to create a barracks. Le Bas’ work, which he called Gypsy Dada, grew out of the Dadaist art movement of the First World War. These artists were radically avant-garde and centered disillusionment with the regime and hopes for peace in their work. Symbolism was used avidly, as dada is ironic, anti-art. With this radical inspiration, Le Bas recentered Traveller identity and sought to detangle the often-elitist art world from art itself.
In Roma Armee, Le Bas used the symbols of the wheel, the eye, and stars. Wheels are a universal symbol of the Travelling community, referencing the wagons or caravans they traditionally moved in and lived around. The eye can be read as a spiritual understanding of the world that has developed as the result of such diverse cultural heritage, but it also represents the unflinching permanence of the Romani and Sinti peoples. Delaine Le Bas explains the significance of the star motif best in a letter to Damian: “The Roma Stars are out tonight just as you saw them in your works over so many years, across the universe, across shipping charts, across maps, across globes…. You believed the possibilities were endless, infinite like the stars.”
Damian passed away in December 2017, but his legacy is carried on by Delaine, who still works with the Maxim Gorki Theater, and their son, Damian James Le Bas, Jr., a successful author.
Spaces such as Gorki allow self-representation of Romani peoples in a space that often proactively attempts to silence their voices. This is an essential tool for greater understanding of the Traveller community today.
“We’re not a homogenous group,” Knight states, her face illuminated by the strength performing has given her and many others. “I really agree with the idea that if you can touch people’s hearts, you can touch their minds as well. I really believe in art as a force of positive change in society and as a social tool for transformation.”
Performance arts have a long cultural link to Travelling people, whose vast histories have been preserved by the rich oral tradition that survives to this day. “We have this tradition of singing a cappella and sharing song, something which is given such pride and importance in the community,” she adds. We talk about how families who traveled together shared the same songs; we are both from Sussex, and our families have lived in southeastern England for generations. This highlights the significance of sharing stories, not just to reach people in the external community, but for the internal society as well.
The Roma diaspora is enormous, and this has created a lack of cultural hegemony that only broader access to information and better representation can hope to fill. “But not everybody is a community advocate,” Knight says. “Not everyone’s going to have all the ‘right on’ political views. We’re as diverse as any community. We can’t expect everybody to be activists.” Although there are no predetermined spokespersons, there is a wider movement forming, especially around Berlin, the new contemporary “Gypsy Homeland” according to the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.
One of the most effective ways to get more Traveller culture into the mainstream in a non-exploitative manner is through the creation and distribution of self-representational art.
“We have been so ostracized from society, from the mainstream,” Knight urges. “So the Romani perspective is new and fresh and different and innovative, one that draws on many sources of inspiration.”
As Knight puts it, the subversive, performance art space that is the Maxim Gorki Theater could not be further away from BFGW’s depiction of the Traveller community, one of Europe’s largest ethnic minority groups. Through the voices of the community and with women to the front, as Knight and I heartily agree, the Traveller population will find a seat at the table of global current affairs.
The revolution will be televised, and it will be beautiful and imperfect, but it will be done.
Chloe Gardner is a writing intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate art historian writing about their family history and European cultures. A Londoner born in Seattle, Chloe now lives in Glasgow, Scotland, a long way from home.