Left to right: Wojciech Szymański, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Joanna Warsza in front of frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia at Ferrara, Italy (2021). Photo: Daniel Rumiancew.
At the Polish Pavilion for this year's Venice Biennale, Polish-Roma artist and activist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, the first Roma artist to represent a national pavilion in the Biennale's history, introduces visual cultures and forgotten histories of Europe's oldest and largest minority.
Inherently revisionist, and for good reason, Małgorzata's practice spans sculpture, painting, textile, and education, and draws its imagery from contemporary Romani culture and everyday life in Romani settlements in the Tatra Mountains, between Slovakia and Poland, to form an 'affirmative and situated iconography' of the Roma community.
Accordingly, Małgorzata's portraits are often made from materials and fabrics collected from family and friends, which imbues them with a life of their own and a corresponding immediacy. Patchworks made of curtains, jewellery, shirts, and sheets, are sewn together to form so-called 'microcarriers' of history, just as resulting images revise macro perspectives.
Importantly, Małgorzata's representations take the perspective of 'minority feminism', which consciously advocates for women's strength while acknowledging the artist's cultural roots. In Venice, this commitment is expressed in the portrayal of 'herstories' from the artist's community against a royal blue backdrop, alongside astrological signs alluding to their prophetic qualities.
'[These women] guide me in life,' the artist tells curator Maria Lind, who has worked with Małgorzata since 2019. In the conversation below, they elaborate on the expansive project at the Polish Pavilion in Venice with Joanna Warsza, who co-curated the pavilion with Wojciech Szymański.
Aptly titled Re-enchanting the World, Małgorzata's 'manifesto on Roma identity' (24 April–27 November 2022), centres on the simple desire for a kinder, more inclusive world, taking after Marxist-feminist scholar Silvia Federici's 2018 writings of the same name.
Its task of re-enchantment draws from the artist's ongoing work towards the historical inclusion of Romani communities in Europe, formerly known as 'Gypsies'; a migrant population habitually met with suspicion throughout the centuries, resulting in mass exile, religious persecution, and killings.
This escalated during the Nazi genocide across Romani villages during World War II, which led to the massacre of between a quarter and half of the near-one-million strong population; numbers that remain estimates from lack of proper documentation, reflecting the importance of Małgorzata's work today.
At the Polish Pavilion, 12 large-scale textiles consider these histories of erasure and removal, with vivid and affirmative portraits and communal scenes covering the pavilion walls with hand-stitched panels across three tiers, revising existing stereotypes while introducing elements of Romani visual culture and contemporary life into European history and art history.
The installation's structure takes after the astrological frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, which depict the calendar months according to early Renaissance astrological traditions. Małgorzata revises their contents and iconography to introduce alternative representations of Romani culture, portraits of women, and daily life in her hometown Czarna Góra, in the Tatra Mountains.
Echoing themes of collective action and migration, the work is made of second-hand fabrics sourced from Zakopane, a town at the base of the Tatra Mountains—many of which had been worn by the women depicted in the images, and was sewn in collaboration with Halina Bednarz, Małgorzata Brońska, and Stanisława Mirga, who are from the same region as the artist.
The installation recalls earlier works contending with Romani representation within European history, like the five large-scale embroideries from the 'Out of Egypt' (2021) series, which recreated patchwork representations of 17th-century etchings by French printmaker Jacques Callot using textiles belonging to the artist's community. (In Venice, the same etchings are re-imagined in the upper section of the textile works.)
Callot's representations warned against Roma people as vagabond travellers to guard against, notably with pistols and bullets. Hypothesising their origins from Egypt, a corresponding misrepresentation ensued, effectively erasing Romani presence from European history—assumptions the artist contests through the work's title, which proclaims a departure.
Brightly coloured scenes illustrated using fabrics with former lives generate an immediacy that counters the mythologies propagated from unknowing and distance, and historicised through Callot's etchings, while introducing contemporary Romani cultures as an aggregation of collective effort.
— Introduction by Elaine YJ Zheng
MLCould you share your elevator pitch of what is going on in the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year?
JWI'll start with one sentence: Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is the first Romani artist in the Venice Biennale's history to be exhibited in any national pavilion.
And now the longer pitch: Re-enchanting the World is a manifesto on Roma identity and art that draws inspiration from the astrological frescoes of the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, a Renaissance palazzo that inspired Małgorzata's sewn textile zodiac palace.
The Polish Pavilion hosts an installation of 12 large-format textiles that correspond to 12 calendar months, which expands the history of art with representations of this largest minority in Europe.
The re-enchantment Małgorzata offers is a vision of cooperation instead of competition and of non-violence.
With pavilion co-curator Wojciech Szymański, we felt very lucky that despite the current political climate in Eastern Europe, we were able to present Małgorzata's work. We turned the Polish Pavilion into a translational one; its main message is anti-imperialistic, anti-xenophobic, and multidirectional, and marries the conceptual and the vernacular, while presenting a minority perspective. On top of that, Małgorzata's work is so visually striking!
MLYour installation borrows the structure of famous Italian Renaissance frescoes in a palace in Ferrara to form a palace of fabric that is essentially a tent inside a 1932 building.
What is the relationship between the stone palace in Ferrara, the Polish Pavilion, and the palace of fabric?
JWPalazzo Schifanoia and its Hall of the Months were completed between 1469 and 1470. It's where exactly 100 years ago, the Jewish-German art historian Aby Warburg, looking at various motifs travelling through time and cultures, coined the concept Nachleben, meaning the afterlife of images.
We take the images further; Małgorzata decolonises and inscribes them in Polish-Romani vernacular historical experience, not only presenting zodiac signs, the decan system, allegories of months, cyclicity, and symbols travelling across time and between continents—India, Persia, Asia Minor, ancient Greece, Egypt, and Europe, but expands them using transnational Romani reading.
MLHow does the installation follow the Palazzo's structure?
JWPalazzo Schifanoia is divided into three belts. We kept the original structure as a scaffolding for the exhibition and a pluri-vocal reading of various threads in Małgorzata's work and she translated it her way.
The upper band at the Palazzo presents scenes from Greek mythology, which have been replaced here with the story of the Romani community's arrival in Europe. The images are based on a series of 17th-century prints by Lorraine engraver Jacques Callot, titled 'Gypsies/Life of the Egyptians' (1592–1635). They are valuable historical materials but they also constitute a piece of evidence of a quasi-colonial view of the Roma, already being portrayed as the 'other' of Europe.
Małgorzata's operation, which can be called both cultural appropriation and appreciation, repeats and changes Roma depictions from 400 years ago as if to regain control over how the Romani visual narrative and identity are created. It attempts to build what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay would call a 'potential history'—a different, non-violent, and anti-imperial one.
MMTThe middle zodiac band is a bit more optimistic. Besides the 12 zodiac signs, we see various Romani women, different herstories, and other people close to me. It's a place where the re-enchantment of the world occurs through Romani feminine power joined with astrology, tarot-card symbols, and magic.
JWThey become the allegorical guardians of fate: goddesses and prophetesses.
MMTFinally, the lower band in the Palazzo, which presents everyday life in Ferrara's courts, is replaced with pictures of contemporary Roma life in my hometown Czarna Góra and Romani settlements in the Tatra Mountains. These are regions my collaborators Halina Bednarz, Małgorzata Brońska, and Stanisława Mirga, and I are closely connected to.
The stories mainly present women—their relationships, alliances, and shared activities—as well as children and animals. Some are based on photographs from my family archive and my uncle's, who is an ethnographer of the minority.
JWThis new palazzo is not painted like in Ferrara, but sewn and literally made of used fabric. To make this installation, we bought kilos of second-hand clothes from Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, where Małgorzata lives. She would pick bits and pieces of various patterns from those heaps of clothing.
On the material level, this project has also gained an afterlife; very often the fabric came from India or Bangladesh and made a similar journey to Europe. Many of the fabrics were part of garments worn by the women Małgorzata depicts. They carry their energy and traces of use—they contain narratives. Our textile palazzo is inscribed in the coldness of the Polish Pavilion erected in 1932.
MLCould you speak to the significance of developing this exact work in a pavilion built in Italy in 1932? This was a country led by Mussolini and the fascists, who used the Biennale as part of their soft power toolbox.
JWPolish participation at the Venice Biennale started before the 1930s. Poland was present as a guest before in the German Pavilion. Apparently, bankrupt Germany even offered to sell their pavilion to Poland for one mark, an offer that was refused.
The architectural complex where the current pavilion sits is part of the wing shared with Romania, Yugoslavia (today Serbia), and Egypt, and was co-commission and paid for by the Polish government, which coincides with fascist Italy, while echoing the sometimes xenophobic atmosphere in Poland today.
Both on the historical and contemporary level, Re-enchanting the World has an amazing softening quality. As Małgorzata says, 'My feminism doesn't shout, it tells stories.' And in some sense, the exhibition enchants people and perhaps even alters their views or attitudes. Our producer, who organised many pavilions, said, 'Finally, this marble floor fits,'—it became part of an imaginary palazzo.
MLRoma herstories are essential to this project; Małgorzata, could you elaborate on their implication and significance?
MMTThe women I depict have played an important role in my life. I started building an affective visual archive of Romani herstories some years ago, be it for small shrines or big banners, as with the one for the 2021 Autostrada Biennale in Prizren, Kosovo.
Among the women who inspired me are artist Delaine Le Bas, activist Nicoleta Bitu, scholar Ethel Brooks, singer and composer Esma Redžepova, Romani genocide survivor and activist Krystyna Gil, the poet Teresa Mirga, actress and feminist Mihaela Drăgan, artist and Holocaust survivor Ceija Stojka—but also my mother Grażyna, my grandmother Józefa, my sister Dorota Germańska, and many others who guide me in life.
Romani scholar Ethel Brooks calls what we do an example of minority feminism: it's a feminism that doesn't stray from our traditions and roots, nor does it break away from our culture. That's why I have presented such amazing women who, with their lives and actions, change the world around them and the lives of others.
They are the Romani warriors, and I don't think they realise the impact they have on changing our society. Of course, I am very careful and sensitive towards these women, to what they feel and how they want to be represented.
MLMałgorzata, I am curious about your process. How do you select your collaborators, or do they select you? How do you decide which fabrics to use?
MMTThe portraits are often created from the wardrobes of people I depict; skirts, shirts, and sometimes jewellery, are sewn together with bits of curtains, drapes, and sheets, becoming literal carriers of micro and macro-histories closely tied to the body. I use these materials to sew the figures and scenes to give them additional energy and power.
For a few years, I have been collecting things given to me by women in my family, from Roma neighbourhoods, and friends. Often I buy them in second-hand stores. The idea of creating patchworks, sewn banners, and tapestries from used materials adds another layer of meaning to the fabric. I can see life in them; I see emotions and feelings.
Portraits sewed from the clothes of a given Roma woman give them spirituality and magic. I personally feel moved when I see the scraps of material, knowing whom they came from, what I remember and associate with them, and whom they belonged to.
It's wonderful to feel that what I do is important to them, that they know they are a part of the project, and of something bigger—a fight against racial, class, and economic prejudice.
MLThe title of the pavilion is Re-enchanting the World. What are your thoughts on re-enchantment?
MMTIn the life of every human being, there is a need for magic and enchantment, but it's not always the case. At certain moments, we should disenchant the existing world, its situations, assumptions, and negative emotions.
Working on topics related to stereotyped and stigmatised representations of Romani people, I try to disenchant and demythologise them by reversing how they are being seen. These stereotypes preside, so I believe that not only activism, but art should be, and is, a tool in the fight against the omnipresence of anti-gypsyism.
In such seemingly insignificant moments, we should take up the fight and gain the strength to disenchant our society and lift the negative charm. This is, of course, already happening as we become more aware of our rights in the fight against exclusion and discrimination. I am happy my art can be a small part of this process.
JWThe title of our exhibition is inspired by Silvia Federici's book Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018). Federici proposes recovering the idea of community and rebuilding relationships with others, including non-human actors—animals, plants, water, and mountains.
Women play an important role in this non-violent process, reversing the current unfortunate fate of the world and shaking off its evil spell. Małgorzata's art re-enchants as it avoids the mode of confrontation and is appreciated by people from all segments of the political spectrum.
This art is inclusive, and has reconciliatory qualities, just like the needle Małgorzata uses as a tool that performs rehabilitation by repairing and mending. Her patchworks are made of elements that don't fit together and do not have to, yet co-exist and create another extraordinary dimension. This is their patchworking strength.
The re-enchantment Małgorzata offers is a vision of cooperation instead of competition and of non-violence. Her art shows the majority culture can learn a lot from the minority, whose field of vision is often wider, which makes it possible to notice what is unnoticed from the perspective of privilege.
In the European context, the re-enchantment displays and embodies issues of transnationalism, pacifism, nonviolence, feminism, and ecology, both in the values communicated, and the richness of the colours and meanings.
Audiences build an immediate connection with the work, which has the capacity to captivate them without a complicated curatorial text. And yet, if you were to write a PhD about the installation, there would be an abundance of layers and topics.
MLMobility is depicted in several parts of Re-enchanting the World. Where would you like the work to go after Venice?
JWWe have received the most beautiful invitation to bring the exhibition to a historical hall in Ferrara, its city of origin, once the Biennale closes. Then, the exhibition will travel to the National Zachęta Gallery of Art in Warsaw, which produced the work, and hopefully to other places.
Romani culture is present in all European countries, which makes our pavilion transnational and translatable to local contexts. It's also about images being in motion, or the Warburgian notion of Bilderfahrzeuge [image as vehicle].
Let's hope its journey as a whole, or in parts, will be very long. —[O]