Swedish museum uses Romanian street beggars as props

MALMÖ, Sweden - By putting two Romanian beggars on display in their latest show, Swedish artists meant to raise questions about global inequality but instead find themselves accused of exploiting the poor.

For the street beggars, from Europe's oppressed Roma minority, it was an offer they could not refuse.

But since it opened in January, the show has turned out more contentious than organisers expected -- with critics saying it reflected a middle-class Swedish view and slighted the Roma.

Even some visitors were disturbed. "The poverty came so close. It bothered me," said Ann-Margret Oftedal.

Luca Lacatus, a 28-year-old carpenter from a village in northern Romania, and his girlfriend Marcella Cheresi, 26, were panhandling on the cold, windy streets of Malmoe, Sweden's third largest city, when they were approached.

Instead of bringing in 30 to 60 kronor (3 to 6 euros, $3.5 and $7.1) per day, the two could quadruple their income for just two hours' work inside the warm, cosy Konsthall, one of the biggest galleries in the city.

The only catch: as part of the installation, they still had to act as if they were begging.

"It's better than out on the street," the soft spoken Lacatus told AFP using a Romanian translator. "Outside it's cold and people aren't as nice as they are in here. And you don't have to talk very much."

The 140 kronor he earned per hour would go towards rebuilding his home, which he said was destroyed in a blaze two years ago and prompted social services to take two of his four children. The other two were staying with family members, he added.

Cheresi, now pregnant with the couple's first child, also had two children of her own now staying with her sister.

'It bothered me'

Romania's impoverished Roma minority suffers widespread discrimination in the job market -- even Romanian President Traian Basescu was last year fined for claiming the group traditionally lived off stealing and was unwilling to work.

With few job prospects in what is the European Union's second poorest member state, many have used the bloc's freedom of movement to travel to wealthier nations.

While some European countries have banned begging, it remains legal in Sweden -- if rare until recently. In Malmoe alone, around 150 Romanian Roma make a living soliciting money outside shops and railway stations, according to a local activist group.

Lacatus cut an incongruous figure as he walked through the Malmoe art museum's restaurant, a popular lunch spot serving locally sourced food to a left-leaning, intellectual crowd.

"People here feel more sorry for us than those out there on the street," he said, leaning on a crutch he said he needed since a traffic accident in Italy.

To enter the art installation, visitors file through a dark corridor where a succession of screens announce: "Today you do not have to give (any money)."

They enter a near-empty, dimply lit room where the Roma couple sit in silence, facing each other at opposite ends. Soothing music plays and a wall is filled with newspaper clippings about how to effect social change.

Few people stayed inside the room for more than a few seconds.

"You feel a kind of discomfort. I felt unable to concentrate when I was inside the room," said Paer Koersell.

Stirring debate 

Anders Carlsson, the artistic director of Institutet, the group behind the installation, said it was meant to get Swedes to question their attitudes towards street beggars.

"As an artist I can offer a space where people can investigate why they are so tolerant towards these injustices that actually go against their own morality," he said.

But the leader of an organisation for Malmoe's Swedish-born Roma -- around 10,000 live in the city -- was not sure using real beggars was the best way.

"There are plenty of organisations today -- established, serious ones that work with these issues on a daily basis," said Erland Kaldaras.

"It bothers we Roma who live in Sweden to see our brothers and sisters sit on the street and beg," he said.

Others accused the artists of pandering to a middle class perspective that added little to Sweden's debate about how best to help its Romanian migrants, who don't have access to the country's generous welfare system.

"The exhibition is not about their lives or their experience of poverty and misery, it's about how we (Swedes) experience the begging," Aaron Israelson, the editor of a magazine sold by homeless people, told AFP.

And with hundreds of beggars in the street who needs to see an exhibition, he argued.

Author and political commentator Kajsa Ekis Ekman, meanwhile, said putting rich people on display would have been a more effective way to stir debate on global inequality.

"If people had seen their bosses sitting (there) asking for money they would really have had to think about their own self image," she wrote in leftist daily Dagens ETC.

More about
Income inequality

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES