Poland’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale features important female figures in Romani culture depicted in fabric. From Romea.cz.

For the first time in 127 years, a Romani artist is representing a European nation at the Venice Biennale.

Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Pole of Romani origin, has decorated the Polish pavilion at the international art exhibition with monumental images made from fabric in a show called Re-enchanting the World. 

“For us, the curators of the exhibition, it is a great privilege that this is not just a Polish pavilion and Polish art, but that it is a trans-European and transnational pavilion,” said curator Joanna Warsza. “The artist offers a new European concept, because Romani people and Romani culture live all across Europe. Thanks to the fact that we have this common culture in Europe, we can go beyond our national boundaries.”

The exhibition title was inspired by a book with the same name by Silvia Federici. Federici writes about non-violent processes stemming from the actions of ordinary people and from feminism, actions that “break curses” and restore human relationships. 

Feminism, the biennale’s theme, is reflected in the collages. Mirga-Tas says it is mainly women who have the ability to change the world. She divided the canvases into three horizontal parts. Her “goddesses” are captured in the central part of each of the 12 panels. The artwork depicts both well-known women and those whose heroism has remained secret. 

“I combined portraits of these real women with symbols from astrology and tarot cards, which boosts even more their power and strength to transform the world through their magic,” Mirga-Tas said in an interview for the ROMAMOMA blog of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture.

Detail from “Re-enchanting the World,” which depicts scenes including prominent Romani female figures or “goddesses,” the author’s relatives, and Romani life in Poland. Photo by Daniel Rumiancew and courtesy of Zacheta – National Gallery of Art. 

The works are the artist’s interpretation of the Renaissance-era frescoes in the Salon of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. She replaced the gods of Olympus, who rule the individual months, with her Romani goddesses. The upper portions depict the Roma arriving in Europe; the lower sections feature images of Romani life today in the area of Poland where the artist lives.

Mirga-Tas studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and began experimenting with textile patchwork while pregnant with her first child 16 years ago.

The work features the artist’s mother and grandmother, as well as well-known Polish Romani figure Alfreda Markowska, who saved 50 children of Jewish and of Romani origin from being transported to the Nazi concentration camps. Markowska concealed the children under her long, wide skirt and smuggled them out of a train station, then hid them in her home and cared for them.

The panels represent the 12 months of the year. Mirga-Tas says she needs more room to capture all of the women who have inspired her, however, and intends to expand her project. Among her future goddesses will be Jana Horvathova, director of the Museum of Romani Culture in Brno, Czech Republic.

The artist frequently uses the clothing of her models to create their images; she says that imprints the figures with their spirits.

The extensive patchwork was sewn in the Hotel Imperial, near the artist’s home in Czarna Gora in southern Poland. The hotel, which was about to be renovated, gave her its drapes and slipcovers.

“I wanted to tell my own story, the story of myself, my family, and my community,” Mirga-Tas said. “It’s just a small drop so far, but I believe we’ll see more and more such things. As a Romani woman, I feel this is an important moment for our Romani community, for Europe, and for the world. And I hope it’s the beginning of other Romani artists representing other countries.”

Malgorzata Mirga-Tas (center) is the first artist of Romani origin to represent a European country at the Venice Biennale. Photo by Daniel Rumiancew and courtesy of Zacheta – National Gallery of Art.

At the opening of the exhibition on 22 April, journalists and activists from the Romani community flowed through the space. One of them was Ervin Bajram, an activist from Movimento Kethane, an Italian civic organization working to combat Roma discrimination. He said he and other Romani people were proud of the exhibition and feel a commonality. “When we meet, it doesn’t matter where we’re from; we understand each other in the same way.” 

Mirga-Tas agreed, saying the exhibition is not just for the Polish pavilion but for all Europeans, “because we Roma live in all countries. I’m from Poland, but when I meet Roma from other countries, I feel we’re one big family. We support one another. I feel how much everyone supports me.”

Jana Donovan is a Prague-based freelance writer who writes about Roma affairs for Romea and Romano vodi. Her work also has appeared in Lidove noviny and Mlada fronta dnes. This story was originally published on Romea.cz, which publishes information about events in the Romani world and is the most-visited Romani news site in the Czech Republic. To support truthful reporting about Romani people at Romea.cz, you can donate here

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Edited for clarity and concision.