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Thomas Roughan and Zsuzsanna Zsuro — Queer Budapest

Over two days in November 2020, attendees of the Queer Budapest Exhibition were able to explore contemporary queer culture in Budapest through the lens of a curated selection of artists currently operating in Hungary. I spoke with the exhibition’s two curators, Thomas Roughan and Zsuzsanna Zsuro, to discuss the formation of the exhibition and how it has since grown into a permanent platform supporting and promoting the work of queer Hungarian creatives.

By Alexandra Kuenning

Can you start by telling me a bit about yourselves? How did you two meet? How did you become involved in the queer arts scene in Budapest?

Thomas Roughan [T]: I’m from London, so I went to Central Saint Martins and I’ve kind of been involved in the arts scene here and around Europe (I’ve lived in the Netherlands before). But it was really through Zsuzsanna, because we worked at the same place, we worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, that’s where we met, and then Coronavirus happened and Zsuzsanna went back to Hungary. We were kind of having talks about the arts scene in Hungary, and we had wanted to work together before Coronavirus and the world went into meltdown. So it was through that that I got involved in the Hungarian arts scene. We were talking and I realized it was a lot bigger than I had thought it was. I think Europe is kind of dominated by London and Berlin and Paris, so I got involved to look at other art scenes that were emerging.

Zsuzsanna Zsuro [Z]: I was working on a Master’s for two years — it was an exhibition and research masters, so I’m rather an art researcher and curator. And like he mentioned, we were working together and that’s how we met. I started to have some interest in the queer arts scene because I got familiar with the London queer arts scene, which is quite amazing, and it gave me such a  freedom in my own practice. I started to realize that this arts scene is present in Budapest. Thomas has his research in the club environment, so he was quite involved already in this kind of arts scene and club scene, which is quite present in Budapest as well. And it was quite interesting for me, so I asked him if he wanted to join me on this journey to explore the queer arts scene in Budapest. We came up with this plan, the whole Queer Budapest Initiative during summer 2020, and then we successfully organized the exhibtion in November. It was a huge success, like everyone came around and it was crowded. 

T: I think that during the planning, in the final stages, there wasn’t a week where we weren’t preparing some statement, like “Due to Coronavirus regulations, unfortunately we have to . . .” 

I unfortunately didn’t get to go to the exhibition because we were banned from traveling, but it’s definitely been amazing to see the kind of creative power that people have in Hungary. It’s something that’s not really spoken about, and coming from the UK, it’s not something I would say you particularly associate with Hungary, that it has such an interesting, rich and vibrant contemporary arts scene. It’s been amazing to see how well received the whole thing has been since our initial exhibition, going forward.

Z: We have already experienced so much positive feedback coming towards us, coming towards the initiative. We had the opportunity to work together with amazing artists, and now we’ve launched the Queer Exhibition Talks series, the podcast. Through this, we can explore the queer arts scene more, having musicians, as well as other female artists —

T: — drag queens. I think the podcast opened up a little more, than just people working in the visual arts. Something that I noticed is that there’s this big queer arts scene in London, but I think it’s kind of separated a little bit. But in Hungary, in the queer community, everyone seems to know each other, and maybe that’s a product of it being smaller.

What was it like planning the Queer Budapest Exhibition? What artists were shown?

Z: The first idea, which didn’t turn out really well, was that we announce an open call for artists — actually only one artist applied.

T: I forgot we did that open call!

Z: Our idea was that we make this open call and whoever wanted to apply would be accepted, because we didn’t want to announce ourselves who is a queer artist and who is not or who wants to be involved and who doesn’t.

T: I think that’s a good point. From the start we never wanted to be an authority on the subject, we just wanted to present the work. Or, I suppose, to create a space.

Z: Eventually we started to research for artists, and luckily we found 15 artists at the end and it was a variety of people.

T: I think one of the first ones was Ádám.

Z: Yeah, Ádám Csábi. He is working at the party scene of Budapest. He’s doing underground, illegal parties here, and he is engaged with the topic of creating parties with the idea of having a safe space to explore yourself, to explore others, to have fun, to listen to music, and it’s quite a rare kind of thing in Budapest. Obviously it’s not that harsh on gay or LGBTQ+ people, but you can’t experience your queerness on the street in daylight. So it was quite important to involve Ádám. 

We also had OMOH, they are Berlin-based LGBTQ party —

T: — that does its night in Budapest. Whereas Ádám is like the underground, I suppose someone doing it more legitimately like OMOH is defining what underground queer clubbing is in a very Hungarian kind of way. Other parties in London, or across Europe, try to replicate Berlin with 72-hour raves, and everyone’s in jock straps and off their heads on crystal meth, but OMOH and Ádám are doing it in a very queer, very Hungarian way that’s specific to Budapest I think.

Z: And then we had fine artists, including Evelin Nagy, she was the only one who applied for the open call. 

T: Our lone queen.

Z: There was Ádám Dallos, he is an emerging fine artist here — I think he’s the only emerging artist here in Hungary who is engaged with being gay in his paintings, so that’s why I thought it was so important. 

There was a collaboration between a couple called Borsos Lőrinc, they made some political art and — they are not very engaged in political art right now — but back then it was a huge scandal. They showed gay pride flags with Hungarian flags and that’s the painting we had at the exhibition. I was so proud of that because it was a huge scandal to exhibit that artwork.

T: I think we were talking about what would happen if we showed this painting, because we didn’t want neo-Nazis turning up and smashing everything.

Z: I was afraid; I had a security guard there. But eventually it was so peaceful and everyone loved it; we didn’t have anyone come in raging about the artworks. 

One of the interesting parts was I found a Roma LGBTQ community here and I realized they wanted to do an exhibition, their first exhibition actually, which would showcase the members and they had a photoshoot and they had poems about the community. They weren’t able to hold this exhibition, so I offered them the opportunity to exhibit within our exhibition. So that was a big part of Queer Budapest, to showcase the Roma LGBTQ community.

T: I think it’s impotant to show these people, especially knowing there’s very much a system of discrimination and oppression that exists, 1) for being gay and 2) for being Roma, especially in Hungary.

Z: We also had textile artists, including a very young one, she called herself Spicy Princess. She made artwork for this specific event, which we were really happy to have as well. She was experiencing her queerness and her femininity within the masculine or toxic masculine environment she had growing up, so that was a really, really powerful artwork to have. We also had Fabian Kis-Juhász, a fashion designer who is currently based in London as well as Budapest. She is a transgender fashion designer and she is open about this. She is very political within her designs, so it was very intriguing and also very powerful to have her and we were very happy to include her as well. Her garments were basically artworks because she made some textiles as well, so it was exciting to have that as well.

T: I also think having someone like Fabian, even being based in London, it’s still important to include people in the diaspora who just maybe aren’t there at the time. Especially with recent developments in Hungary, like Article 33, having trans voices, and out and proud visible trans voices, is important. 

Z: We also had an installation made by Mónika Üveges. She was one of the owners of the space which we used, and she created, what was that?

T: It was kind of like skin, I thought.

Z: That was because Turkey initiated this law or agreement against abortion between several countries and Hungry joined as well. It went viral during autumn 2020, and that’s why this was her response: it was a womb, but it was turned inside out, which was also very shocking and powerful. 

T: I suppose planning the exhibition was an interesting experience because Zsuzsanna would get a text from me once or twice a month being like, “Right, I’m booking a flight to Budapest,” and then the next thing we knew it just couldn’t happen. I think we really started planning it in August, and I think Google Drive and Zoom became the head office. It was definitely a lot of talking, Whatsapp and everything. Not being able to be there on the ground, my involvement was helping to research the artists and helping to guide the concept. Also helping to manage things with Zsuzsanna, because organizing 15 artists who want to do different things in the same space, and then on top of a pandemic, isn’t easy. Even handling two artists can be a handful, let alone 15 who are already passionate about the event. 

Z: The other thing was that we didn’t have a budget, we just went for it and then whatever comes will come. But in the end, the exhibition turned out to be powerful partly because of artworks and topics, but partly because it was such a grassroots thing, it was a community project itself. We had SKURC Group studio space to exhibit in, we didn’t have to pay any rent. My mum made masks, which we sold. We announced that we would be happy to have volunteers for the installation, and many people came. They were just happy to help and that was it; we couldn’t offer anything to them.

T: I think that’s what was most wonderful about the thing. I don’t know if there was anything we particularly did to make that kind of culture, but it became something for everything. Artists were excited to bring their friends and it became like a community thing. I think that’s important because a lot of the time, especially in London or major European art scenes, they say they’re public, but they’re very hard to access and they’re highly selective. So having this open and transparent and this kind of “Welcome, come on inside” environment was needed because the queer arts scene is, I wouldn’t say new, but it’s still kind of emerging, making itself established.

Z: But it’s very brave that the artists showed their art regardless — 

T: I think sometimes artist in countries with less than favorable rights or views of LGBTQ people often want to shy away from being called queer art, because its obviously going to be easier for for people’s careers if they’re just known as a painter. They can be working with things queer themes, but sometimes the general public don’t know it’s a queer theme unless you point it out.

Z: The other main thing we wanted to do was not only build an exhibition for visitors to passively come and experience, but also we wanted to educate people a bit more on this topic. That’s why we invited three LGBTQ non-profit organizations to have a discussion, and also we had a separate discussion with the artists themselves about these topics — how do they experience these kinds of issues — to give a more in-depth experience of how this works in contemporary Budapest.

T: I think having those talks also allowed us to frame the artwork within a queer narrative, rather than it being a narrative of queer art in an anti-queer place. I think another big point of the exhibition was to show that despite harsher conditions, there are actually queer people thriving. And I think that’s not just specific to Hungary, it’s true for anywhere really. Allowing queer artists and queer organizations to frame their own narrative was an important part of the exhibition. 

What was the response in the community and in Hungary towards the exhibition?

T: I’ve not been able to go to Hungary, but I do a lot of the Instagram stuff, so I’ve seen that people just seem to be excited about the exhibition and what we’re doing with the podcast. We get emails from people wanting to be involved, and messages from people saying how much they appreciate this exhibition and that this was something they needed to see. People were coming from different parts of Hungary to come to Budapest to see the exhibition. I was shocked with the amount of people that came. I think we got over 1,000 interests on Facebook, 300 confirmed as going. I was shocked because I thought this was going to be a very niche subject, and it was at a very weird time of the year. But the response has been kind of like thank you for providing something that was needed. I think a lot of people wanted to talk about these topics, but didn’t have the tools or the belief that you could make a space like this that was for everyone. 

The community has been lovely in supporting what we’re doing. We asked Ádám to be involved and he said I’ve got this person, I’ve got this person, I’ve got this person, we can do a rave as a party afterwards. People were really, really involved. I think what was most inspiring was that people wanted it to work. A lot of the time in London, you do things any way, it’s so competitive and so critical that it almost feels like you can’t get anything off the ground, whereas this was a more loving, let’s do this thing together sort of thing.

Z: It was kind of shockingly positive feedback we received. I was expecting much more negative feedback coming from the general public, but even curators and theoreticians who I told, they admired our work and told me it was amazing. Also the positive outcome, which we probably feel on an everyday basis, is how people are happy and how much they are engaged with the Queer Budapest Talks. When we mention, “Hi, we want to have a short conversation with you guys, what do you think, this would be the topic,” they are generally interested and they really like this initiative too.

T: One of the Queer Budapest Talks I did focused on techno and electronic music, which is a big part of the queer experience. One of the people who was on it was a person called Bálint who is not queer, and it’s been amazing to see how even non-LGBTQ people have engaged with the project and see that it’s important. 

What’s been inspiring is that it’s allowed people to recognize each other’s work in a political landscape. Not just in Hungary, but in Europe in general right now, it’s so divisive. I think it’s nice to see this kind of community cohesion. Part of my reason in being involved is that after Brexit I saw the UK becoming isolationist, and Hungary was pursuing these isolationist politics and I thought that queer people have to help each other beyond borders or else there’s no point. You can’t have one utopian land. It’s also allowed people I know here in the UK to access Queer Budapest and see it as well. Not to say that we’re international, but it’s been nice because we get to engage with the Hungarian diaspora. I think it’s bringing worthwhile attention to the LGBTQ community in Hungary.

Can you go into more-depth about what it is like to be LGBTI in Hungary?

T: I can’t talk about the experience of being queer in Hungary, but I can talk about the experience of being queer in Europe over the last few years. Every queer person has a different relationship to it, but there’s the global shared experience of coming out and everything. In the last ten years, things have gotten a lot more worrying as a queer person, especially [with] the politics of [Viktor] Orbán, Hungary’s Prime Minister, and Poland. It’s getting a lot more aggressive and a lot harder. The conversations that I’ve had with queer people in Hungary is that it’s frightening because it looks like things are trying to be erased. I think it’s a trend we’re seeing across the European continent. I think to be queer in Hungary is to be resilient, that’s what I’ve observed from my perspective, and to be kind of like “I’m doing this, I have a right to be here.”

Z: I think in Hungary, especially in the last ten years — from 2010, since we’ve had the Fidesz party in the government — it’s become very political. I’m not an LGBTQ person, I’m more a queer person, but what I’ve experienced based on my knowledge coming from London and knowing the London queer scene — which obviously is very open and is an existing part of the community or society — in Hungary, it’s inherently political. Being gay or being transgender here is like a day to day protest. Because people are coming to realize how toxic this Fidesz government [is]; they have started to realize that it’s not something that we should maintain in the long run. But still, these people experience major drawbacks, especially from the police as well, so it’s definitely a protest.

T: It’s almost become weaponized in a way. I think LGBT is a political tool. Governments like Fidesz, like most far-right, populist parties, need a scapegoat and whether it’s LGBT people or immigrants, they’re all waxed with the same brush. From doing research into this, it seems like the Fidesz government is trying to paint LGBT as being against the Hungarian national image.

Z: To compare to the early Fidesz years, the government tried to initiate something similar to the Trump government, where if you are a Trump voter and you are gay, it’s ok to be gay as long as you vote for Trump. And Fidesz tried to have this communication with the LGTBQ scene, but at some point, they just couldn’t engage and they left this conversation behind and went in a direction which is very Catholic and very Christian and if you are a part of the LGBTQ community you go to hell and stuff like that.

What led you to create your podcast series “Queer Budapest Talks”? 

T: It wasn’t originally part of the plan. I think the plan originally was just to do the first exhibition and see what happened. Initially, I never expected it to get to this point. The podcast series really came about from Zsuzsanna being approached.

Z: The guys who own SKURC Group — the video space where the exhibition had been — they have a curator there as well, Bettina, and she offered this opportunity. She also works at a radio station called Lahmacun, and it’s online, made by people our age, and is partly about art, contemporary art. So she said that they would be happy to have our podcast or something if we wanted, so we went for it.

T: I think when it first came about, Zsuzsanna and I were like “how do we do this?” We didn’t know anything about doing a podcast, so it’s been a learning experience. And also like how do we do a podcast when we’re not in the same country. 

Z: Obviously, the first idea was after the exhibition that we definitely wanted to engage and open up the exhibition because it wasn’t only about visual art. We didn’t know how to open up for the rest of the people, for the many, many queer artists there, so when this opportunity came, I think everything clicked.

T: I think it was good because although we wanted to include a lot of people in the exhibition, when it comes down to it, it does have to have a message. Unfortunately, you can’t put everyone in or every type of work in or else it’s just a big collection of people and people’s artworks. Once the podcast came along, it was a chance to explore other things. For example, Zsuzsanna’s has done an amazing one with drag queens. I thought it was interesting because I told my friends in London that we’re having a conversation about drag queens, and they were like I didn’t know Hungary had a drag scene, but there is. 

Do you have any more projects in the works?

T: We’re hoping to do an exhibition in London in the winter. Hoping is a big one, because it’s not so straightforward anymore. Brexit has brought many challenges; we can’t just bring a painting over anymore. It also depends on Coronavirus and whether we’re allowed to leave our homes later this year. I think the exhibition is largely the bigger project we’re going for. But I feel Instagram and the online work are also the ongoing work as well. What the pandemic has showed us is how important the online stuff is for the queer community because that’s how a lot of our research was done for artists.

Z: The major thing will be to bring the Hungarian queer artists to show in the London community. We also want to involve London-based artists as well, to overlap each other or just to collaborate

T: To create a dialogue between them.

Z: So yeah, that would be great. That’s for the long-run definitely, but in the meantime we are planning our podcast series. 

T: I don’t think we’ve ever gone about things with setting any dates for things. The exhibition happened and then we realized there’s such a big community and that it’d be a shame to end it. And then the podcast presented itself and that happened. We keep finding stories or people find us or get recommended to us, so that’s ongoing.

Z: We also really want to engage and collaborate with other queer Hungarian artists further on, if that’s possible, just because there are so many queer artists around us who are experiencing this scene for the first time.

T: I think it’s also an interesting position we have in this kind of community. Although we’re not physically making anything or are creators in the scene, it’s interesting to be involved and be facilitators for people, and seeing their work, it’s an interesting scene. I think the ongoing project is the Hungarian queer arts scene really, to see where it could go and what could happen.

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