Who Owns Cultural Heritage? The Roma People’s Significance to Swedish Circus
Sometimes the most extraordinary things are hidden in plain sight, such as Sweden’s oldest circus, nestled at the end of a small, suburban street in Malmö. Likewise, important stories like the role of the Roma people in the history of circus in Sweden often go untold. In order to bring these things to light, my peers at Cirkus Syd and I have begun a project titled “Roma people’s significance to Swedish circus,” with the goal of connecting and telling previously uncovered parts of the long and important history of the Swedish Roma people’s contribution to circus in Sweden.
I have spent most of my working life engaged with contemporary circus. For the past six years, as the network coordinator for the Baltic Nordic Circus Network and the director of Cirkus Syd, I have worked hard to help contemporary circus grow across the Nordic region. Of course, I also hold a deep respect and love for classical circus. So it was a delight to meet with Trolle III Rhodin in 2018.
Trolle is the director of Sweden’s oldest continuously running circus company: Cirkus Brazil Jack. Cirkus Brazil Jack was started by circus performer and entrepreneurial jack-of-all-trades Carl Rhodin, whose stage name, Brazil Jack, echoes the likes of Buffalo Bill, a popular entertainer at the time. In 2024, Cirkus Brazil Jack will turn 125 years old, and Trolle carries on the family traditions as a fourth-generation ringmaster.
One day in conversation, Trolle told me proudly that they are a circus oftravellers, part of the Roma minority. The Roma flag is printed on the mat of the manège, or rehearsal ring. “Hardly anyone notices! It’s hidden in plain sight, that’s a very Roma thing to do,” I remember him saying.
The more we chatted, the more it was clear that this hiding in plain sight was the result of years of discrimination and verbal abuse. Everyone knows that, historically, circuses have travelled from town to town all over the world. They travelled to audiences, put up their tent, and manifested their unique skills. From my research, few in the Swedish cultural sector have thought about or connected circuses to the institutional and societal discrimination of cultural minorities such as the traveller people. Of course, not all classical circuses in Sweden were Roma, but what is interesting to explore is that we in the contemporary circus community have a shared history with the Roma cultural minority. From this conversation, the idea for a project to celebrate and showcase the role of Roma people in the history of circus was born.
One of our first steps was to research and learn more about the history of the Roma people. In Sweden, the Roma people are a national minority consisting oftravellers/Sinti, Finnish Roma (Kalé), Kalderash, Lovari, Arli, Gurbeti, and Polish Roma, and there are around 60 variations of the Romani Chib language spoken around Europe.The people who belong to the Roma traveller minority in Sweden are usually descended from people who arrived in Sweden in the 1500s. While the vast majority of contemporary travellers do not travel anymore (they are settled just like any other Swede), they still belong to the ethnicity. As one of the last groups to maintain a travelling lifestyle, the Rhodin family—Cirkus Brazil Jack’s founders—are still on the road more often than not, just as they have been since 1899.
There is very little documentation about the Roma people anywhere in Europe. It is part of a pattern of discrimination that the groups a society have chosen to discriminate against in the past are also not visible in the documentation of the history of those time periods. This is much the same in Sweden, though circus as a phenomenon is quite well-documented, and it is therefore difficult—but possible—to build a puzzle of individuals who were part of the Roma minority and which ones were not, and which circuses were Roma and which ones were not. Making these distinctions more obscure, it wasn’t until very recently, in the year 2000, that the Roma minority was nationally recognised within Sweden and grouped as it is now. Travellers and the other groups of Roma were not seen as the same group 100 years ago.
The Roma people, as a national minority now legally defined in Sweden, have been discriminated against in horrendous ways for several hundred years. Throughout the entire 20th century, Roma people were subjected to extensive and systematic surveillance by the state and municipalities of Sweden. All “gypsy” immigration was prohibited between 1914 and 1954, meaning those Roma people who survived the Nazi concentration camps were not able to seek refuge in Sweden, like other groups from the same camps were.The Institute of Racial Biology in Sweden, which clearly points to Roma as a foreign element, was established in 1921/1922; it was abolished in 1958. The Swedish Sterilisation Act was introduced in 1934. One of the groups that was considered a threat to the Swedish ethnic group and which, among other things, was subjected to forced sterilisations, was the Roma. This law was abolished in 1975.
Click on any image to open the gallery of photos from the Cirkus Brazil Jack’s family archive:
It’s not a coincidence that circus and the Roma people have a joint and parallel past. Since Roma people had to travel every two weeks, circus was a perfect job. One of the big questions this project aims to answer is if there are any connections between the lack of state support for circus and the structural discrimination against Roma people throughout the twentieth century. We know that the current way that culture is supported was established in 1974, when Swedish cultural policy was defined. For some reason, circus was left out of it, and circus advocates have been fighting for its acknowledgement ever since. There are many views on why circus was left out, and we are mostly interested in investigating any relation to the similar structural discrimination against ethnic minorities.
Luckily, information on Roma rights has been available at our fingertips. Europe’s only Roma Information and Knowledge Centre, a department working within the city of Malmö to support the Roma peoples day-to-day, make visible the Roma people’s culture, and implement legislation for Roma rights, is based in the same city as Cirkus Brazil Jack; they became the perfect partners in our quest. Cirkus Brazil Jack also has its own circus historian, Toni Rhodin, a walking encyclopaedia of circus history. He seems to know about everything and anyone it has ever touched.
The project team has also taken an interest to address questions about cultural heritage;
- What is cultural heritage?
- How is it created?
- Who gets to own it?
- How does it influence who we are, our identities?
The questions about cultural heritage are interesting to us because when a society chooses to discriminate, the discriminated are left out of historical documentation, made invisible; erased. Physical art forms often follow a similar path of erasure. Therefore, this was another burning issue for us to address: both the Roma traveller community and the circus community suffer from lack of documentation. As mentioned above, a lot of documentation does exist about circus historically, but we have found it to be relatively one-sided and phenomenological. It doesn’t talk about the lived experience of those people. Rather, it shows us mostly what circus looked like, and it’s up to oneself to draw conclusions between the lines.
We first carried out afeasibility study to look at what our team of collaborators could collectively do and the potential impact of the project. At this point, the collaborating organisations wereCirkus Brazil Jack,The Roma Information and Knowledge Center of Malmö City, andCirkus Syd. At the moment we are in Year One of a three-year enquiry.
The aims of the project are to:
- Increase competence regarding the Roma people’s contribution to Swedish/European cultural heritage.
- Increase competence regarding the connection of travelling culture to contemporary circus.
- Convey and develop knowledge about Swedish cultural heritage by problematizing and developing the concept.
- Increase Roma participation and strengthen Roma identity.
To achieve these aims, we set out the following plan:
- In Year One, we take 250 Roma-identifying children in Malmö to the Roma traveller circus and meet the Ringmaster and performers.
- Work to define Swedish cultural heritage through a variety of actions: a seminar, an article, etc.
- Investigate the connection between classical circus and contemporary circus and circus’ connection to the history of traveller communities.
- Work with Malmö City to create a permanent section for Cirkus Brazil Jack’s family archive.
This year we have also developed a seminar, which we have held at several human rights and cultural policy conferences in Sweden (next up on the9th of Feb at Folk & Kultur, Eskilstuna). The seminar is called “Circus, a refuge, the Roma people’s significance to Swedish circus.” In it, we focus on taking the audience through the parts of our collaboration. We talk about the structural discrimination and racism against Roma people, we give a historical overview of the subject of Roma travellers in Swedish circuses over the last 200 years, and we talk about the connections to Swedish culture and circus today.
There is a deep feeling within the project team that we have stumbled onto something significant, and that we need to take the time it deserves to explore it. It also feels very important to create new documentation around the subject and pay tribute to and make visible the legacy of Roma traveller cultural heritage within the heritage of Sweden and its circus.
To preserve the cultural heritage and guarantee its future existence, Cirkus Brazil Jack is setting up a new foundation, to which you or anyone else who cares about the preservation of circus can donate and contribute. To find out more about the project and the foundation and/or to donate, email Cirkus Brazil Jack’s Ringmaster, Trolle Rhodin, at[email protected].
This project is supported by the Swedish Arts Council, Region of Skåne, Malmö city and Lund municipality. The article is written by Lina B. Frank, with support from Edward Rapley and Mujo Halilovic. All images credit Cirkus Brazil Jack’s family archive.