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Roma art finds a Kreuzberg home

In April Galerie Kai Dikhas opened, becoming the first permanent address for contemporary Roma and Sinti art in Germany, and perhaps the world. The exhibition ends June 19. Don't miss it!

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Photo by Lindsey Isola

Founded in 1945, the Aufbau-Verlag was the GDR’s primary publishing house. After reunification, it became a symbol of progressive literature, still operating on Hackescher Markt. When Matthias Koch, a former teacher from Ruhr, took it over in 2008, many questioned his commitment to the building’s history.

But if progressive is what they wanted, they got it.

Envisioning a new future for the Aufbau-Verlag as a center of literature, art and culture, Koch uprooted the Communist relic and moved it to Moritzplatz in Kreuzberg, creating the new Aufbau Haus on its southwest corner. In April, under the artistic direction of Moritz Pankok, Galerie Kai Dikhas opened, becoming the first permanent address for contemporary Roma and Sinti art in Germany, and perhaps the world.

As an art-world cause célèbre, Roma art isn’t exactly brand new. The 2007 Venice Biennial included a Roma pavilion with the exhibition Paradise Lost. But outside the clichés of overly emotive renditions of poverty and isolation, Roma and Sinti art has received little attention.

Enter Kai Dikhas. The opening exhibition is from Lita Cabellut, a 50-year-old painter born in Barcelona. She lived on the streets of her hometown before being adopted at 13. She eventually found her way to painting, influenced by the storytelling of Goya, the colors of Velázquez and the emotion of Rembrandt.

Her large-format paintings on display chronicle the life – and suffering – of the great flamenco singer Camarón de la Isla. His slow death due to heavy smoking and drug abuse is sensitively illuminated through Cabellut’s thick, moving brushstrokes. The portraits capture feeling, but whether the subject is laughing or crying is impossible to distinguish – a mark of honesty and non-judgment.

But less due to their social commentary than to their artistic merit, these emote. The richness of the colors enlivens the subject, and the chronological progression is neither antagonistic nor comforting. Collectively the paintings engulf the viewer in a practical, rather than tragic, story.

Two more solo exhibitions, as well as a group show, are planned at Kai Dikhas throughout the year. If this former Communist book press can continue to liberate Sinti and Roma art from the confines of leftist boilerplate, Berlin, and the rest of the world, may finally discover the unfiltered perspective of an enigmatic European cultural group.

Lita Cabellut: Camarón | Kai Dikhas, Prinzenstr. 85D, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Moritzplatz, Tue-Sat 11-18:00