Mihaela Drăgan is an actress, playwright and singer from Bucharest, Romania. In 2014, she co-founded the independent Roma feminist theatre company Giuvlipen (meaning feminism in the Romani language), alongside Zita Moldovan. In 2015, she played in the movie Aferim!, which won the Silver Bear at Berlin International Film Festival. She is also a trainer at Theatre of the Oppressed, where she works with Roma women to tackle the specific issues they have to deal with. In 2017, she was one of the six finalists for the International Theatre Award from New York, an award that recognises women’s excellence from around the world in the theatre. PEN World Voices International Play Festival named her one of the ten most respected dramatists in the world. Some of the themes represented in Giuvlipen’s performances include topics such as early marriage or arranged marriages, hate speech, the evictions of Roma people, the hypersexualization of Roma women by non-Roma men and sexuality issues regarding the Roma communities. In my talk with her, we focused especially on the cultural movement created by her and how it impacted her career, namely Roma futurism, where the figure of the Techno Witch takes centre stage, and the practice of witchcraft is key in abolishing systemic racism. I hope that some of the magic of Roma futurism transpires in this interview.
I would like to start by asking how you came up with the concept of Roma futurism. In a previous interview, you talked about the artistic residence in Hong Kong from 2018 at Para Site Contemporary Art Centre as the birth of the cultural movement, where the position of the witch and witchcraft take centre stage to create a ritualistic language where the oppression regarding the Roma reaches its end. Was that something that came natural to you or was it more difficult to create this futuristic concept? And what triggered the idea?
– I wanted to write about Roma futurism and during my residence I read about Afro futurism and other types of futurism. The idea of witchcraft came from alchemy and wizards. After I researched there about magical practices, I came back to Bucharest and I did the same thing and it was clear then that witchcraft was an important element in Roma futurism. And it seemed to me that it is closely linked to technology, as technology seems to retain some kind of magic.
So, I think you arrived naturally at this concept.
– Yes, but not suddenly, after I read a few things about it. I was inspired by Silvia Federici’s book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation from 2004. Everything came together. What triggered the idea was the fact that in Roma culture we do not have this perspective about the future. And we do not really have art about the future or SF art and I thought it was the right moment.
I also think that Roma communities from other countries do not have this cultural movement called Roma futurism.
– Yes, this was a concept that I developed, and I hope that other Roma artists will use it in their work. I am convinced they will do it in their own way. But that is the reason I wanted to develop it, because this notion did not exist in Romania nor in any other countries among Roma culture. We are all the time besieged to do all sorts of contemporary shows or related to our history and that leaves little space to do something experimental. That was the trigger.
You recently worked with the concept of Roma futurism by holding a seminar in Zürich, Switzerland during the Out In The Loop Festival that took place in September 2022. How does Roma futurism translate into practice? What were some reactions and personal views from the participants?
– It was very dope. I did some workshops on Roma futurism before and during the pandemic or all sorts of presentations about it. When I was in Zürich, there was this summer school with art students from all over Europe and Asia; from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and from all sorts of artistic backgrounds, like theatre, choreography, performance, screenwriting. I talked about Roma futurism and I gave them some examples from us and then I urged them to write. They could choose from writing a malediction or a political healing ritual that was supposed to be relevant for them and their experience in their own country. And to write it in their own language, if they feel like it. And they actually wrote in Chinese – Mandarin, Cantonese –, French, Italian. It was so dope to see this, that English was no longer lingua franca and that it was not necessary to understand everything as they would translate and summarize, whether it was about the dictatorship in China or what they had to deal with. And then they would say it in Mandarin and a very cool energy would occur. It was indeed very touching. I remember this group of three Chinese girls that wrote some amazing stuff. One wrote a very dope malediction. And you start to realise that even though there is a lot of censorship there, there are a lot of young people that are pretty radical, with access to information, you know? And that they are very politically aware of what is happening. Another person wrote a curse on the aggressor, and it was also very touching. One girl did not want to read, but it was a cool process for her. This is pretty much what happened at this workshop on Roma futurism. And we also talked a lot about the political role of art and about the political discourses that dominate the arts, or the global movements, like Black Lives Matter and the memorial statues that were removed during the protests, a sign of oppressive culture finally being eradicated. In short, it was very cool and I learned a lot about the individual experiences in their countries.
In 2022, the first feminist trap Romanian music album entitled The Techno-Witches was released by Ferentari Studios. This also made you a threat in another art field, in music. You took the stage name Kali alongside Niko G (Nicoleta Ghiță), who is also an actress in Giuvlipen, the theatre company that you co-founded alongside Zita Moldovan. The lyrics are written by the two of you and the producers are Wanlov, Andrei Horjea and Iulian Sfircea. What made you decide to go into music? Was it in the works for a long time? Did the pandemic made it easier for the two of you to get together and finish this project?
– Yes, clearly. If the pandemic did not happen, we would not have gotten the chance to do this because of the time constraints. If we were having a theatre production, we would make some songs there, but never with the idea of launching a music album. It was dope that we had enough time for this and that we got a chance to explore the musical aspect. I started this because of Nicoleta, because she is very passionate about trap and has done this for many, many years. And not only her, also the children from Ferentari [a neighbourhood from Bucharest]. She is very good at this anyway. And I wanted her to teach me. And it was dope. Because somehow, I was getting tired of theatre. You need to take a break sometimes. And it was the perfect moment, during the pandemic.
I listened to the album more than a few times. And it doesn’t seem like you it’s the first time you’ve done this. Your voice fits perfectly with the melody, with the tone, with everything.
– When it comes down to technique, I progressed a lot. Last year I was a mess. But in a year, I progressed. I also took canto lessons and Nicoleta taught me, and I listened to a lot of music. I trained a bit, but not as much as I would have wished. But for me it was clearly a debut. And even for Nicoleta who has done this thing for many years, because she did not make an album previous to this, or any concerts. Everything was coming from passion, so to say. But never to do this thing and to be paid for it. In order [for Nicoleta] to not remain there, in the neighborhood, between their groups.
The music video for Roma Stars was released some weeks ago, featuring Bianca Mihai. The song starts by saying “I want to be the first Roma spacewoman, / To travel in space and to the moon, / To go with the caravan of time to the future, / Come back to sell progress at Obor fair.” (Obor is the biggest Romanian fair market). It definitely is the motto of the song and of the album overall. But is it difficult to sell progress? Are people more reserved or do they buy it?
– It is a pretty slow process, this thing with selling progress. It is also a very personal process and an introspective one, by which I mean that it never ends and that you are never only in the position of the one who gives progress. I believe it is difficult. But I think that having these messages in our songs is pretty fun. And I realised, having my experience from theatre, that it’s easier to deliver messages through music than through theatre, because everybody listens to music and the access to music is much easier, then in theatre. Therefore, this is an instrument that we can use. At least to me it seemed that the potential is a lot bigger. This was the discovery while working with this music album.
Recently, you came back with the play entitled Romacen in Timișoara, Romania. The play marked the beginning of the cultural movement we talked about. In 2019, you declared that “Roma Futurism claims the figure of the Roma witch, so stereotyped in the collective imaginary, and witchcraft becomes our artistic and political response to the social inequalities and injustices of the world we live in.” How do you look back on it? Was there a difference between the public’s response and the feedback you received from theatre critics or those who work in the arts?
– From 2018 I did all sorts of stuff regarding Roma futurism and not only the theatre play Romacen, but also a music album and the short movie The Future Is A Safe Place Hidden In Our Braids. So, I was preoccupied with developing this movement and it continues to be an artistic practice that I make use of. I still want to write maledictions and healing rituals. I am still very passionate about it and I am a good friend with the witches from Mogoșoaia whom I worked with and I find that a certain swap is being produced between us, because I learned a lot of things from them, but also, they do the same from me. I mean, every time when something crappy happens politically, I call them, and they do their rituals, which was the case with that person from Salvini’s party [Matteo Salvini], we were streaming the ritual. It is clear that somehow it grew and I am glad that it did not remain only at an artistic level, but that it arrived also to the real witches.
-The public does not have to have a formed discourse about political theatre. The role of art is to deliver all sorts of experiences, and you do not need any kind of training in order to enjoy a visual or instrumental experience. There are some who come more prepared and some who do not, but that is totally ok.
-The theatre critics write from a whole different perspective. Sincerely, I do not think we have progressive theatre critics in Romania. There are some, like maybe two or three women, but it is easier at the same time in theatre. They are interested in this feminist Roma theatre that we represent…
I really enjoyed how you used hair as a way to unite women, as a metaphor for feminism. Could you talk a little bit more about how you came up with this idea?
– Hair is very much used in witchcraft. At least that was the connection in my mind. And I think it is pretty dope how it is used now, in the movement of the Iranian women protesters, and in the recent global movements of women cutting their hair. Hair, yes, I find it becomes a metaphor for our struggle, for our solidarity, for our rights. And at the same time, it bears a lot of energetic charge and that is why it is used in witchcraft. There also exists this practice, this custom, to have long hair. And that is why it is covered at times, so you would not do spells on it, so somebody would not take your own hair. And it seemed very safe this idea that, if there was a future without oppression for us, it would be kept in the braids of Roma women. In my mind it was this very poetic idea that the future would be kept in the hair of Roma women, between their braids. And if the moment comes, that is where the seeds for such a future must be kept. It goes back to Olivia Butler – I like the idea of the seeds being planted for the future. Visually, the hair is very aesthetic. And, because a lot of Roma witches come from more traditional families, they keep their hair very long and it’s part of their corporality, of their gestures that they use while performing, there is a connection regarding it.
Interview with Mihaela Drăgan conducted and translated by Paul-Daniel Golban, October 2022.