Ghetto Pride

Northwest photographer Andrew Miksys captures the outcasts of Eastern Europe.

Delivering papers for Bingo Today, the local bimonthly published by his Lithuanian immigrant father, would not seem a career path that might lead a Redmond teenager to the arts. Yet in his forthcoming photo book, Baxt, and one-day CoCA exhibit, Andrew Miksys will present images of a marginal Eastern European subculture perhaps not so different from the down-and-out denizens of Renton bingo parlors where he once delivered the news.

There may be a trace of Diane Arbus in Miksys' roadside gothic images of hard-luck, hollowed-out bingo enthusiasts, their faces equally wary and weary (a series displayed here in 2002, when he was an artist in residence at the Photographic Center Northwest). But Miksys cites Robert Frank and William Eggleston as being the greater influences on his documentary-rooted color images. "I didn't want it to be a freak show," Miksys recalls of his bingo player portraiture (begun during the '90s). "I knew all the players and the managers and the regulars."

It's a sociological gaze, not the specimen collector's forceps, that Miksys directs at the Gypsies, or Roma, of Vilnius, Lithuania, in his latest work. Bingo is by choice, while you're Roma by birth, and the subjects of Baxt (which translates as "fate" or "luck" in Roma dialect) are accustomed to being scorned and stigmatized, Miksys says, speaking by phone from Vilnius, just before departing for Seattle. "They are definitely despised and hated. Anything dealing with heroin, which is a big problem [here], is all blamed on the Roma."

As a consequence, the mostly younger subjects here seem protectively bunkered in their own homes and customs. Their cell phones, stereos, boxing medals, and old family photos are displayed with equal, unself-conscious pride. They are somewhat isolated within Lithuanian society, but unlike, say, Richard Avedon's In the American West, they're not isolated by the camera in front of a studio backdrop. Miksys always grants them a context.

You get the sense with the Roma poses and dress that post-Soviet modernity—with all its economic hardship—is something to be tried on, like a pair of knockoff designer jeans, but never trusted. In the background are photos of Stalin, reminders of the Nazis, a past filled with per-secution. Even as many younger Roma are following the Lithuanian exodus to work abroad in Ireland and England, Vilnius still harbors a stubborn enclave congregated in a cheap district by the airport. "It's definitely a ghetto," says Miksys.

The faces are different from those of the bingo players, but the postures recall a different American scene. Like the holdouts of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, the Roma project an attitude of, "It's bad here, but I'm staying anyway."

Though now living and working in an obscure corner of Eastern Europe, Miksys has been getting some high-visibility attention. One of his Lithuanian portraits appeared in The New Yorker last week. And the introduction to Baxt comes courtesy of Andrei Codrescu, the ubiquitous public radio personality, whom Miksys met while pursuing his MFA at Louisiana State University. Codrescu is also coming to Town Hall and CoCA—where he'll be joined by musicians, belly dancers, and the like—at the instigation of Seattle publisher Mark White and his nonprofit Scala House, which specializes in literature in translation, particularly from Eastern Europe.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
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