by Rhona Iris. Rhona is featured in our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month campaign: Art Activism! She is also the creator of Pomegranate Prints and the Radical Roma Archive
My name is Rhona Iris, I am a young British artist and activist of Romany heritage who seeks to disrupt systems of oppression using my values, heritage and art as a catalyst for change.
I am on the board for Big Team CIC and the creative producer of the Radical Roma Archive. I use arts-based methods to tackle mental health and disadvantage with the aim to make healthy social environments that transform systems without dividing people. I believe that promoting community involvement in the co-creation of art and engagement can make fairer spaces that encourage racial harmony and mutual understanding between different communities.
As a working-class woman with Romani Gypsy roots, my journey to engage with art and social change started with my own self-awareness and appreciation for difference. Growing up with a lack of opportunity and access to resources has meant I make art with what I have to hand. I work in printmaking, drawing, paint and craft. I don’t own a computer, and I’m interested in the designers, activists and artists who create without relying solely on technology, and instead harness traditional crafts to explore the creativity that’s innate in all of us. I use art as a vehicle to look at the history and identity of my heritage. I feel this is a powerful practice for those who have historically been denied the right to participate. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities continue to be globally disregarded as creatives or artists despite having a vibrant array of artistic practices. I want this to change, and for these groups to to claim what’s theirs.
Through disempowerment, my family have been denied their culture and traditions. This prevention isn’t enough to trample our heritage, nor our Roma spirit that lives fiercely within us. Alike to my family, many nomadic Roma people, along with other traveller groups, have been battling persecution for at least 1000 years. Every time a family is forced to give up their heritage and assimilate, a way of life is lost for future generations.
This persistent failure to sustain a fair society for GRT and other underrepresented people is debilitating and concerns us all. As I’m sure you know already, the policing and courts bill is an existential threat to the these communities and has the potential to permanently eradicate the traditional GRT nomadic way of life. This issue demands community resistance.
I realise that tension is a creative opportunity, and innovative actions need to be taken to support GRT communities in the arts. In 2020 I wanted to take my art from the confines of my bedroom and fulfil my creative ambitions, progress with my ideas and experimentation and challenge the human rights systems that seek destruction. I was incredibly fortunate to gain a space on Rising Arts leadership program 2021 led by Prince Taylor and Roseanna Dias. This experience informed my path to advocacy and gave me the tools to delve deeper into the subjects that I’m most passionate about. I made a book with the help of graphic designer Ash Kayser (@aalvk) that showcased the talent of Roma artists. It is a mixture of handprinted & digital elements, with archive photos, art, interviews and history.
I wanted to continue to support these artists and shine a light on the policing bill and lived experience. The Radical Roma Archive is a travelling outdoor gallery that seeks to challenge and dismantle prejudices and stereotypes. In May we took over 26 advertising spaces with posters that exhibited our community resistance to the new policing bill and wider societal inequalities. I think, this was the first, most public display of GRT perspectives Bristol has ever seen. I had the pleasure of collaborating with Elijah Vardo, who’s work can be seen via Instagram (@elijahvardo). Elijah made beautiful bow top poster frames and text for the work to sit in. The posters compromised of poetry, graphic art, print,
painting, and photography. You can find out more about the 10 incredible artists that displayed work as part of the archive at https://www.instagram.com/radicalroma/
Renewing outdated and harmful attitudes with publicly-viewable art is a tough feat – the work is the learning. I aspire to use design in collective action to challenge authority in a healthy, socially conscious, and proactive way that responds to the needs of people. I am excited to progress with the idea of art placemaking, and take a direction that could provide a variety of new forms of social and political activism. Aligning my values with the work that I do feels urgent in a mist of the crisis that we’re living through. I hope I can continue to highlight our creative capacity in a way that recognises the collective vision and collective identities of the beautiful culture in which we belong.