“That is who I am and that is that” – Interview with Visual Artist Roland Korponovics
An Interview by Lilla Németh
I had the opportunity to interview Roland Korponovics, a 29 year-old visual artist from Hungary, who is one of the few people of Romani descent to ever graduate from The Hungarian University of Fine Arts.
Roland’s art is very personal. His favourite theme to explore as an artist is his own identity, its complexity and relation to larger concepts like race, gender and sexuality. During the interview, Roland elaborated on what it means for him to be an artist of minority background.
Lilla Németh: Your exhibitions in Jurányi and Studio Gallery both had performative elements. Can we say you’re a performance artist?
Roland Korponovics: I’d rather say that I’m also a performance artist. I used to mainly be interested in video performance. My main area is video and photography, and I’ve started painting as well. But lately it’s been mostly performances, live performances in front of an audience, that is.
By the way, my exhibition at Jurányi wasn’t a big, conceptual one, it was rather for the house. It was organized around my identity as a barista. It’s sort of like embracing my gay or Roma identities. If you work in the service industry, which pays well, it involves a lot of social interactions per day. I wanted to have an outlet for that.
I had to show how much it affects me. I wanted to give something back, to show that I have feelings too.
LN: Why did you feel it was necessary?
RK: I was working next to an exhibition space, passed by it every single day, so it felt obvious that I had to do something there sooner or later. I drew everyone, including myself, in chalk on a big board. At the end, I wiped it off and put the chalk on my body, to indicate that the whole performance was about my identity in the context of being a barista in this particular establishment. It was exciting for me to work on a black board with a material that is changing, that I can physically wipe off at the end.
LN: What are you working on at the moment?
RK: I’m working on my thesis, which I am expecting to complete in a year. I study at the Intermedia Department of The Hungarian University of Fine Arts. I paint, I take pictures, and I perform with Gray Box Projects, which is a group, something like a theatre company, made up mainly of artists, but there are social workers among us as well. It is organized by Anna Ádám, whose vision is to create a theatric space by using garments. We figure out the concepts together, but the garments are a given. I perform a lot with Gray Box nowadays, and I work on personal projects besides that.
LN: Which of your projects are you most proud of?
RK: I wouldn’t really use the words “proud” or “satisfied” in relation to my work. It’s more about making myself understood, and to successfully get my point across. Also, my work is usually made with the intention to resolve some inner conflict, or to examine how I feel about a certain issue. This is quite therapeutic for me.
LN: So is your main goal being honest?
RK: Yes, being honest, and finding the perfect way to express myself, so I can get my point across, but it’s inevitable that I will be misunderstood, because people decode the work through their own lense.
The good thing about performances in front of an audience is that you get immediate feedback. The performance has its own atmosphere, which vanishes the moment the performance ends.
The performances never quite turn out how I planned. It’s never going to happen exactly how I imagined it. This is the best way for me to get feedback about myself, to see what I’m capable of.
LN: Am I right in assuming that you are interested in people? It is obvious that you want to connect to your audience. Where do you think that stems from?
RK: I think it stems from my identity being the main theme of my work, because this means I always have to explain myself. I want to make people understand, make them accept me. For that, you need to connect. Comparing yourself to others is how you get an understanding of yourself. We live in an age when everyone identifies some way due to the differences they notice in others. There is no authentic self – we compare, constantly. This is true in my case as well, this is how I notice differences and similarities, which might inspire me to create art. It’s inevitable to be interested in others if you are interested in your own identity.
LN: Do you feel it’s different to be an LGBTQ person who is also Roma?
RK: It’s a cliché, but being gay and being Roma are both something you have to embrace. Not everyone can tell that I’m Roma, but they can probably tell that I’m gay – while some of us don’t look gay at first glance, but everyone can tell that they are Roma. I don’t even know if I ever talked to another gay Roma person. Maybe not. Probably not.
However, I don’t consciously isolate myself, thinking I’m too special or something. Both sides have something different to teach. Both identities need to be embraced. And then you have to get to a point where you’re like, that is who I am, and that is that. Others can only accept you if you accept yourself first. I think that’s the hardest part.
LN: Is there a Roma LGBTQ community in Hungary today?
RK: There is an LGBTQ community in Hungary, there is a Roma community, but I don’t know about any intersection of the two.
What I do know is that, in my opinion, homosexuality is still such an issue and isn’t accepted yet because the Hungarian LGBTQ community isn’t too unified or proud. I’m talking about my own generation, I’m 28. We are still so invisible! It’s no surprise we aren’t fully accepted.
It is our duty to stick together. There are way more straight allies at the Pride marches than LGBTQ people at this point, who knows why. Obviously, I know what a trauma it is to be open about your sexuality when you’re gay. But I’m seeing positive changes. I see much more gay people in the streets, which doesn’t mean there are more of us, it just means more people are open about it.
There are generational differences. I’m turning 29 this year. I remember when the internet was still a new thing. When I was a kid, I couldn’t get information too easily. But the new generation has their own clubs and parties, their own identity, their own community, and they are much more proud. I think it’s because they have easy access to information, which I didn’t have. But I don’t think it’s their obligation to win this fight for us. This is something I expect from my own generation, meaning 25-40 year-olds.
I don’t think the problem of homophobia is that bad, even though our situation could be much better. It’s mainly due to problems in communication. There are no media personalities who could introduce the topic of homosexuality into people’s lives in an organic way.
LN: Where do you think the lack of unity stems from, is there discrimination against Roma people in the LGBTQ community, for example?
RK: I don’t see any conflict between the LGBTQ and Roma communities. The LGBTQ community tends to be less prejudiced towards Roma people. It’s more about each individual person being indifferent towards one another. It’s a Hungarian trait. This could be said about the Hungarian Roma community as well.
I’m convinced, however, that we should not wait to be liberated by people outside the community. It is our fight to win, every day. Rarely, but I do see gay couples holding hands in the streets sometimes. It’s usually the younger generation. So there are changes, but it’s slow.
LN: I assume there are enormous differences between Budapest and the countryside.
RK: That’s for sure. I’ve just seen Mundruczó Kornél’s film, Nincsen nekem vágyam semmi (This I Wish and Nothing More) the other day. It has a gay character played by Roland Rába. We discussed it with a friend of mine, and I told her how lucky I felt for growing up here in Budapest. If I was born in the countryside, say, in Nógrád county, or Szabolcs county, or anywhere else, basically, being Roma and gay, well… I wouldn’t be who I am today, probably. It’s more difficult to be gay outside of Budapest, even if you live in a bigger city.
LN: Do you find art a good tool for fighting prejudices as well, just like the media?
RK: Absolutely! That’s what modern art does. It reflects on the modern world, as it can’t really say anything new anymore. But making it accessible for the people is a different story. I have exhibitions in galleries, for example, perform here and there, sometimes in museums… This will never reach a simple old lady or a young gay boy living in a Roma settlement.
LN: So you find the media a better tool for that? Everyone has a television.
RK: Yes. I don’t think we should dumb it down, just make it more visible, for everyone. I’m in the art scene, but it’s completely isolated from everyday people. Of course people won’t come and see, why should they? They never hear about it anywhere.
LN: What are your future goals, both personally and as an artist?
RK: My goal as an artist is to be honest, as I’ve said. To cut the nonsense, be as open and honest as possible, without any shame. To be braver, artistically. That is my goal. To be truer and more spontaneous.
I’m sure that I want to live abroad for a bit after getting my degree in a year and a half, but I want to come back. It’s not about me hating it here, I just think you can learn more about the world if you travel. I want to gather experience. I think my personal plans are very universal. I want a boyfriend, to have a child, to have a family. Who knows what’s gonna happen in the world in 10 years, wars, et cetera. You can’t really plan ahead. I think you have to strive to achieve what you want in life as soon as possible.
LN: What’s your message to young people? What advice would you give to your 15 year-old self?
RK: For me, the most important revelation of the past two years has been that you can’t escape your dreams, whatever they are, so it’s useless to fight them. They will make themselves come true.
I had so many dreams and ideas that I didn’t find true or useful at the time, I was ashamed of them, I was running from them, I didn’t think they were right. So many of these, things I had in me since I was 15, have come to fruition during the last two years. For instance: I was asked to participate in a performance at the National Gallery, where I had no job apart from standing in one place in a dress they have given me. That dress looked exactly like the one I was wearing in a drawing of mine in an animation I created when I was about 20. At the time, I thought it was horrible. That was the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the dress. The lesson I learned was that those ideas were authentic at the time. I believed in my dreams, but I repressed them, and then they found an outlet.
That was the real lesson, that you have to face your dreams. If you feel like something is not worthy, not enough, cliché, or shameful, you still have to face it and say, yes, this is me. These desires will find an outlet for themselves in some way or another.
My mom used to tell me when I was 15, and she still tells me so sometimes, “son, you can only love others if you love yourself first.” And that I had to love myself first so others could love me too. This is my message to 15 year-olds. Love yourself, know your history, and know that anyone who won’t accept you will drift away, because they don’t matter.