New York

View of “Andra Ursuta,” 2012. Both works titled Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, 2012.

View of “Andra Ursuta,” 2012. Both works titled Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, 2012.

Andra Ursuta

Ramiken #7

View of “Andra Ursuta,” 2012. Both works titled Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental, 2012.

An unusual news story emerged from debt-addled Eastern Europe last January: The Roma (or “Gypsy”) witches of Romania were facing a new, 16 percent income tax. Farewell, black-market magic. Although the new law gave some credibility to the much-maligned profession (the occupation “witch” was officially added to the government’s labor rolls), predictably, not all the enchantresses were pleased. Reports circulated that some covens planned to curse president Traian Ba˘sescu by throwing mandrake into the Danube River. To celebrate these “unknown psychic soldiers,” New York–based, Romanian-born Andra Ursuta crafted “Magical Terrorism,” an exhibition that pointed out the ongoing discrimination the Roma population has faced. The show was an acerbic and alarming tribute.

At the heart of the array were three social-realist black-marble statues of women in babushkas. Modeled after a 2011 news image of a Roma woman awaiting her deportation from France, the sculptures are outfitted with colorful nylon jackets decorated with coins in three currencies—those of the US, Romania, and the EU. Part of the series “Commerce Exterior,” 2012–, these pieces paralleled a group of works from the series “Conversion Table,” 2012, installed nearby: large headless torsos with long, pointy breasts (a droopy version of the Madonna bullet bra) cast in aluminum, iron, or a concrete-manure blend and adorned, around their necks, with similarly decorative coin necklaces. The multi-currency jewelry points to the Roma’s nomadism, but it reads most forcefully as a comment on the population’s unstable relationship with capitalism. Marxists attribute a kind of “magic” to money and commodities—the mysterious value produced by circulation within systems of exchange. Here, dangling from Ursuta’s sculptures, the coins are valued differently: for their aesthetic qualities and, perhaps, talismanic powers.

Throughout the show, Ursuta presented a version of contemporary Roma life that is distinctly different from the assimilatory politeness envisioned by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy when he proposed finding ways in which to integrate the Roma rather than deport them. Near the entrance, the artist had bashed in the gallery’s large storefront windows, an act of Black-bloc civil disobedience that suggests the witches’ magical terrorism. Passing shards of broken glass, visitors encountered the massive Cartwoman, 2012, a shambolic installation that resembled an excavated steel, wood, foam, urethane, and metallic cart with rubber tires. A pair of boots wedged into the middle of the silver sculpture symbolized “the first woman Ursuta saw hit her husband in public with a mud-filled shoe.” This incident is precisely of the sort that has motivated animus against the Roma, resulting in a perception of their otherness rooted, at least partially, in ideas of comportment: of acting “right.” They have never had the “right” relationship to capitalism, nor the “correct” ideas about money and labor.

In an interview, Ursuta once stated, “I embrace stereotypes about my own culture and accept them as truths because I want to see what happens when these ideas are taken to their logical conclusion—usually something that is constructed as dark or offensive.” A great virtue of her recent show was her insistence that stereotypes should be adopted aggressively, maybe even threateningly, and employed as grassroots tools for political subversion. The tactic will hopefully gain some currency.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler