Małgorzata Mirga-Tas

This feature on the Polish-Romani artist was commissioned for a Venice Biennale preview published in Metropolis M:

From the series Out of Egypt, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

In her essay for the catalogue accompanying Paradise Lost, the inaugural Roma pavilion which she curated at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, Tímea Junghaus wrote: “Of course, in an ideal world, Roma artists would be able to exhibit in any of the European pavilions, but it is a fact that no artist of Roma origin has been presented at the Venice Biennale throughout its 112-years.” Fifteen years and several biennale editions later, the work of a Roma artist will finally be exhibited in a national pavilion, that of Poland (of all places) – a first in the biennale’s long history. As it happens, of the sixteen artists from eight European countries featured in Junghaus’s first Roma pavilion in 2007 – a collateral event transcending national boundaries – none hailed from Poland. One need not read too much into this apparent oversight. Junghaus, who comes from Hungary, chose to focus on the central-European Romani contemporary art scene that she knows best.

For the Polish-Romani artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, who graduated from the Academy of Fine Art in Kraków in 2004, the year 2007 was a turning point. Born in Zakopane, Mirga-Tas grew up in the Romani settlement of Czarna Góra (Black Mountain) at the foot of the Tatra mountains. In her diploma work – a gypsy caravan sculpted out of layered cardboard – she addressed the symbolic representations of Roma life and culture. At that point, Mirga-Tas had already joined the Romani educational association Harangos, but in 2007 she began a fruitful collaboration with photographer Marta Kotlarska, with whom she co-organized a series of workshops called “Romani Click”, using pin-hole photography as a vehicle for storytelling inspired by Roma legends, and aimed at Roma children living in settlements in the Podhale region of southern Poland, in neighbouring Slovakia, as well as in London.

The first Romani pavilion in Venice acted as a spur for the fledgling Romani art scene in Poland. Mirga-Tas initially paired up with fellow Roma artist Bogumiła Delimata for the first in a series of Romani Art exhibitions staged in ethnography museums, regional art galleries, and other more or less prominent venues across Poland. They were later joined by Krzysztof Gil, who became the third member of the Romani Art collective, active from 2007 to 2011. Keen to get to know better the wider Romani contemporary art community, Mirga-Tas started inviting artists from abroad for open-air events and residencies taking place in her hometown, Czarna Góra, over the next six years (2011-2016), under the banner of Jaw Dikh!, meaning to “come and see!” in Romani language. The artist’s whole family got involved, overcoming linguistic barriers to look after international guests from all over Europe and make them feel at home.

Mirga-Tas relies on a close-knit group of collaborators, including family members, to produce the large-scale patchworks sewn from brightly coloured, richly patterned fabrics that have become her trademark in recent years. This work-intensive and time-consuming process starts with the selection of photographs, often depicting familiar figures or scenes from different Romani settlements that the artist pieces together as in a collage, scales to the required format, and transfers onto canvas in rough outline using old-fashioned carbon paper, before cutting them out. The resulting cut outs are filled out with a colourful assortment of materials acquired in second-hand stores, if they had not been donated to the artist by relatives or friends, and sometimes those very characters that are portrayed in her works.

Mirga-Tas’s most ambitious undertaking yet, the project conceived for the Polish Pavilion together with her curatorial duo – Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza – is proving a logistic challenge and a race against time, despite the help of four dedicated seamstresses, one of whom is her aunt. Titled “Re-enchanting the World” with reference to Silvia Federici’s 2018 book by that title, the monumental installation comprises twelve large-format textile works, each consisting of three horizontal registers according to a complex iconographic program, loosely inspired by the remains of the fifteenth-century fresco cycle from the Hall of the Months at Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, the object of a detailed analysis by Aby Warburg, in which he laid down the foundations of his iconological method. In a lecture delivered before an international congress of art historians in Rome in 1912, Warburg showed how the astral symbolism and images of the Greek pantheon present in the intermediate section of the mural cycle were passed down and debased “over the course of centuries, in their wanderings through Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Spain”.

In a live-streamed interview held at the end of January inside the temporarily vacant Imperial Hotel in Zakopane, Poland – an art deco gem that Mirga-Tas and her assistants are using as their studio in the run up to the biennale opening – the artist and the curators stressed that the Palazzo Schifanoia was merely their starting point and that the project had no academic pretensions. And yet, the broad canvas provided by the Renaissance mural cycle as interpreted by Warburg seems eminently well suited for telling a nuanced story about the Roma people, their culture and symbols, the way they have been perceived and portrayed by others, and the realities of daily life in a Roma settlement, such as the one Mirga-Tas grew up in and where she still lives today.

Her own three-tiered cycle of fabric-based works, while made from scratch, draws on work she has exhibited in other contexts. The upper level revisits Jacques Callot’s series of four etchings made in the second decade of the seventeenth century (based on what Callot had observed on his travels in Italy), known as Les Bohémiens (The Gypsies) or La Vie des Égyptiens (The Life of Egyptians) at a time when gypsies were believed to have come from Egypt. Mirga-Tas had recently appropriated these images, full of picturesque detail yet ultimately demeaning, for a body of work presented at Białystok’s Galeria Arsenał in 2021 as part of her ironically titled solo show “Out of Egypt”.

The middle section, corresponding to the zodiac signs surrounded by three enigmatic decan figures in the Palazzo Schifanoia frescoes, is dedicated to heroic and admirable Roma women – such as Alfreda Romkowska (also known as Noncia) who saved 50 Roma and Jewish children bound for Nazi concentration camps and Papusza, a self-taught Polish-Romani poet – but it also features Mirga-Tas’s own relatives. Herstories, 2019/21, was in fact the title of the artist’s contribution to the third edition of the Autostrada Biennale in Prizren, Kosovo, for which she produced five giant female effigies of local sheroes, selected together with members of Prizren’s Romani community.

Mirga-Tas rightly takes pride in her family’s achievements. In an interview that she gave to the Polish cultural magazine Przekrój in 2018, she confided that her grandparents were illiterate, and yet they managed to put their children through school and university. Her uncle Jan, who is a writer and the author of fairy tales, was the first Romani student in Poland; her aunt Stanisława graduated from a pedagogical academy; their brother, Andrzej Mirga, studied ethnography at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Dating to the late 1970s, his black-and-white photographs documenting the life on Romani settlements in southern Poland, including his own, are an ongoing reference point for Mirga-Tas, and a model for the lifelike genre scenes unfolding across the bottom section of her offering for the Polish Pavilion.

The selection of a minority artist to represent a by and large monoethnic country at the Venice Biennale is puzzling to say the least, especially in Poland’s current political climate. An unsigned ROMAMOMA blog entry posted on the website of ERIAC (European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture), of which Mirga-Tas is a founding member, speculates that the family ties and sense of belonging that permeates her work may have resonated with the Polish right-wing government’s overtly pro-family ethos. Be that as it may, the presence of an artist of Romani origin in the Polish pavilion is partly down to Hanna Wróblewska, the outgoing director of Zachęta – National Gallery of Art – the institution that traditionally organizes the competition for the Polish pavilion – who was recently dismissed in the latest turn of the screw performed by the ultra-conservative ruling powers. No stranger to controversy, Wróblewska has commissioned Yael Bartana’s “…and Europe will be stunned” for the Polish pavilion in 2011, which was the first time ever that a non-Polish national represented the country at the Venice Biennale since the international art exhibition began. The commissioning of Mirga-Tas’s pavilion project, on a par with Bartana’s, is Wróblewska’s swan song.