Narrative by Mary Evelyn Porter
"I am an artist first. I must reiterate that."
Delaine Le Bas grew up in Sussex in southwest England. She is the eldest of five children from an English Romani family. "I refer to myself as a Gypsy. This cannot be translated as Zigeuner or other derogatory terms in other languages."
As a woman, Delaine has had additional stereotypes to confront. "My grandmother taught herself to read and write and encouraged her girls to become educated." Delaine completed secondary school and then studied fashion and textiles at St. Martins School of Art in London from 1986-88. In a 2008 interview with Ben Cobb of Wonderland Magazine, she stated, "If you go to college people think you can't be a Gypsy because Gypsies are completely uneducated."
Delaine met her husband, Damian when she was sixteen and they married when she was nineteen. "Damian was partly Irish traveller so that was a difference in culture between us although not major." A fellow artist, Damian's illustrated maps explore the issues of dislocation, migration and national identity which have emerged as focal points in Europe and elsewhere in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. They have one son, Damian James, whose book seeking out traditional Romani 'atchin tans', entitled Stopping Places was published in 2017.
For many years, Delaine and Damian Le Bas self-funded to push forward their artistic visions. "It is very difficult to obtain funding for the type of extensive research we were doing. Funding is generally short term and country specific." In the early 2000s, partly as result of the opening of the former Soviet occupied nations and the European Union's 2003 conference, Roma in Expanding Europe: Challenges for the Future, projects by Romani artists received increasing attention.
Delaine and Damian exhibited at Paradise Lost, the first Roma Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. As the Open Society Foundation sponsors of the pavilion noted, "The pavilion marked the arrival of contemporary Roma culture on the international stage."
In her artist statement for the Roma Pavilion, Delaine observes, "My work is the point where Outsider, Folk and Contemporary Art meet...observing from two cultural viewpoints and creating a visual representation of those thoughts."
Delaine describes her work as a "bricolage" an archive of embroidery and sequins, dolls and banners referencing the bygone era of English Romani traveling for work in 'zebra trailers' replete with patterns and colours.
"I was born in 1965 and loved the fact that while I was growing up there were so many people who looked different. Majority culture tends to stereotype the "Gypsy" community as free spirits and not understand that they are talking about an ethnic minority who have been discriminated against for centuries.
Between 2007 and 2016 Delaine and Damian exhibited in several cities across Europe. The installation Into the City, 2011 was set up across from Viennese Parliament.
Their exhibit, Safe European Home? was featured at the Kai Dikhas Gallery in Berlin. The idea for Safe European Home? arose in 2009 from Delaine and Damian's concern over growing European hostility to the Roma and migrants in general in the wake of the economic crisis of 2006. The title of the exhibit adds a question mark to a song title by English punk rock band, The Clash, Safe European Home (1978). The lyrics of the song include the line, "Sitting here in my safe European home. Don't want to go back there again." The song is generally interpreted to be poking fun at the insular British tourist, "I went to the place where every white face is an invitation to robbery," and their perception of people of colour as a threat.
In 2016, The University of Essex exhibited Safe European Home? In part, the University's description of the Exhibit reads, "During this time of unprecedented migrant and refugee movement across Europe, artists Damian and Delaine Le Bas focus on those who inhabit the outside edges of society...Damian's painted maps sit alongside Delaine's textiles, banners and ephemera, creating an environment that allows us to consider the precariousness of life on the periphery. This exhibition creates a space to discuss the rise of the nation state and the historical contexts that inform our current political situation."
"My father, my uncle Eddie and my husband all died in 2017. The way I have handled my grief is to let it all out. My son has been my unfailing support through all."
In January 2019, Delaine portrayed Medea in the artistic interpretation piece, Medea Rromnja exploring how society labels and brands women in the context of mainstream society's depiction of the Roma as threats.
In May 2019, Delaine performed Romani Embassy at the 58th Venice Biennale as part of the FuturRoma pavilion sponsored by ERIAC.
"It is not easy to 'come out' about your roots, who you really are. If anyone thinks I have made my life easier or my family's by stating who I am they are wrong."
"Our community of Gypsies, Sinti, Roma, Kale have to try to present ourselves in new and different ways, not repeating all the exclusionary practices of the past. This is a global community. The continuity is far more important than the differences. Most important is our objective, 'the best work possible in the best possible way'. Although I have opinions on steps that need to be taken, I cannot answer these questions for others. No one should tell another how to define himself or herself. People must speak for themselves."
"Sometimes one must be the elephant in the room."