Museum Sparks Controversy by Turning Homeless People Into an Art Installation

A Roma couple is on display at the Malmö Konsthall in Sweden—and it's all to raise awareness of income inequality.

(Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Mar 5, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

With hundreds of thousands of homeless people in our midst, folks trying to stay warm in doorways—or begging in busy intersections or outside convenience stores—are a common sight. But perhaps proving that the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, a Swedish museum has taken a controversial approach to humanizing folks who live on the streets: It has put one down-and-out couple on display.

With their installation at the Malmö Konsthall in Malmö, Sweden, the display’s creators, an art group called Institutet, said they hoped to spark a dialogue about wealth inequality and how we treat those among us who beg for money.

“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,” Anders Carlsson, the artistic director of the group, told AFP.

To accomplish that, the group hired 28-year-old Luca Lacatus and his pregnant 26-year-old girlfriend, Marcella Cheresi. The two were begging for cash on the street in Malmö when the artists approached them and asked them to be a part of the project.

Inside the museum, visitors walk past screens that say that today they don’t have to give any money. Then they enter a room where Lacatus and Cheresi are sitting across from each other, pretending they’re begging by holding up the signs they use in public.

The artist collective pays Lacatus and Cheresi about $17 for two hours of their time. On a good day on the street the pair might only collect about $7 from panhandling. However, critics of the project believe it exploits people who are suffering.

“The exhibition is not about their lives or their experience of poverty and misery, it’s about how we [Swedes] experience the begging,” homeless advocate Aaron Israelson told AFP.

Because both Lacatus and Cheresi are members of the Roma ethnic group, some people see the art installation as culturally offensive.

Members of the ethnic minority have a long history of being stereotyped and persecuted across Europe. Seemingly subtle slights to the group—in fiction, Roma servants are the only ones who aid Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s horror classic—reflect long-standing attitudes of Roma individuals being less than wholesome. If you’ve ever used the term “gypped” to describe being ripped off, know that you’ve uttered a Roma slur.

Hundreds of thousands of Roma were murdered in the concentration camps of the Nazis, and today they’re sometimes denied work across the continent because of ethnic prejudice. Over the past few years European nations have put draconian policies in place that are generally seen to be targeting Roma immigrants. They’ve been evicted from their homes in France and other nations. Last year, one of Sweden’s neighbors, oil-rich Norway, which has seen an influx of Roma emigrating from Romania, considered making panhandling punishable by jail time and a fine.

Erland Kaldaras, an advocate for Swedish-born Roma, told AFP that an art installation such as the one in the Malmö Konsthall doesn’t help members of the group who need it most.

“There are plenty of organizations today—established, serious ones that work with these issues on a daily basis,” said Kaldaras.

Despite the controversy, the artists and the museum haven’t indicated that they plan to shut down the exhibit, and Lacatus and Cheresi seem happy to have a warm place to hang out for a few hours.

“It’s better than out on the street,” Lacatus told AFP. “Outside it’s cold and people aren’t as nice as they are in here. And you don't have to talk very much.”