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Gypsy Queen

text by Ro bert Go ethals, phot ography by Ljalja Kuzn etsova

Ljalja Kuznetsova. Boy with bird. JGS, Inc. Permanent Collection

Ljalja Kuznetsova was born in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, in 1946. Graduated from the Kazan Aviation Institute hoping to become an engineer. Confessed to a Moscow journalist instead.

In our room at the dorm, there hung an old Soviet camera. No one used it. Once it was my roommates birthday, and I didnt have money to give her anything. And she was very beautiful. So I bought a manual for the camera and photographed her for her birthday. By 1978, Ljalja was working for a museum in Kazan. Her life was trawling in silence, her handsome husband dying of killer leukemia. With a 4-year-old daughter, Kuznetsova hit the open road, alleviating her grief, forging life anew. Babe documented the lives of the Liuli Gypsies. Roving the open steppes of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, the outskirts of Odessa. The beauty recounted her adventures with the Gypsies this way: There was something about their way of life, their love for freedom and dancing that seemed to address the questions that I myself was trying to answer. In their company, I caught glimpses of a road to some sort of inner life a gigantic metaphor for freedom.

Ljalja Kuznetsova. Woman Smoking. JGS, Inc. Permanent Collection

Originally from India, the Gypsies roamed Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Landless, uneducated, and dark-skinned, these Wanderers were

often persecuted as vagrants and criminals. Forever run over, beaten up, and jailed, condemned to lives of ruination. In Britain, Henry VIII made it street legal to behead them. Yeah, man. Nazis cheerfully gassed or shot dead 500,000 Gypsies. Holocaust, too. Youd think a history of colossal indifference might nourish some sense of fellow-feeling among our small worlds enlightened leaders, but Nicolas Sarkozy, the two-fisted President of France, ordered the expulsion of all illegal Roma and itinerant immigrants. Suits the European Union just fine. But nomads, you wanna get poetic, are not just the Roma. We got Gypsies, too, right here in America. The High-Class and Irritated know them better as Illegals. (Or, diablos!) And the Good Old Boys and Girls down in Arizona, well, this street-legal brother doesnt need to give nobody the do lo in Republican Safari Country. Why not keep the powerless, no-account underclass Mexicans down? (Thats a shout-out to you, Governor Jan Brewer.) Homegirl recently signed a bill into law that aims at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting Hispanics suspected of toiling our precious soil without the proper $5-per-hour paperwork.

Ljalja Kuznetsova. Odessa. JGS, Inc. Permanent Collection

Theres something gorgeous about Kuznetsovas images of Gypsies. Their dignity. Their heightened appreciation of the kaleidoscopic promises of life. Where is the photojournalist today capturing the romantic readiness our own Gypsies embrace? The stuff we see clicking through newspapers online is so fake little wonder Americans cant keep track of whats true and whats false. I fear what will happen to them in the coming decades, Kuznetsova said of the Gypsies many years ago. For me, their story is an example of what happens when the past must come to terms with the future.

Ljalja Kuznetsova. Uralsk: Banquet. JGS, Inc. Permanent Collection

~ November 1, 2010

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