Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is a Polish-Romani visual artist, sculptor, painter, educator and activist. Born in 1978, she lives and works in Czarna Góra, a Romani village at the foot of the Tatra Mountains.
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas started her artistic career with sculpture, which she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków under Józef Sękowski. As a student, she developed a characteristic authorial sculptural technique using cardboard as the base material. She sculpted in the glued layers, using the pale brown colour of the material and the clear texture of the cardboard and glue. She gave form to the sculptures by cutting and modelling blocks of glued cardboard with a chain saw, grinder and drill and bracing them with metal and wooden supports. In this technique, she created semi-abstract and surreal depictions of animals, combining everyday life with the extraordinary, somewhat resemblant of the later hybrid-like creatures from Daniel Rycharski’s Rural Street Art. Her diploma work also included a Romani theme, which was later to become the leading theme of her art. Mirga-Tas comes from the Bergitka Roma tribe, which has the longest traditions of living in settlements, dating back to the pre-partition era. The artist herself also finally settled in her hometown of Czarna Góra, on the border of Spiš and Podhale.
Her 2004 diploma work titled Caravan is a slightly ornamented Romani caravan, fragile and somewhat melancholic. Although sculpted out of cardboard, it was still inspired by the visuality of the nomadic lifestyle of the Romani people, which was drastically transformed and regulated by their forced settlement in 1964. The artist’s newer works depict a world no longer clinging to the past known from Jerzy Ficowski’s texts but the lives of Romani communities in permanent settlements. They document both the changes and the longevity of social models developed over the centuries, with community activities not limited by the confines of four walls.
With time, cardboard sculptures began to give way to drawings and paintings in which the monochromaticity of cardboard was replaced by an explosion of colour and ornamentation. Decorative, almost purely ornamental compositions, with floral motifs were accompanied by equally decorative portraits in which human silhouettes melted together with ornaments. Finally, a narrative element appeared in her representations of members of Romani communities, and portraits of individuals replaced portraits of Romani communities.
In genre scenes, Mirga-Tas not only stayed true to her passion for decorativeness but even developed it, complicating the Baroque texture of the heavy paintings with patterned fabrics, sequins, feathers or playing cards. Thanks to them, the flat scenes built with clear contours gained optical depth and began to sparkle or almost vibrate in a slightly pop-art fashion. The fragments of fabrics used are not incidental – they often come from clothes once worn by people dear to the artist, such as family members and friends. What might seem to be a mere ornament adorning the depicted scene is therefore sometimes a most realistic and somewhat intimate element, not simply presented in the painting but transferred onto it directly from reality – like a woman’s skirt made of a piece of skirt actually worn by the portrayed.
Despite the decorativeness, the scenes presented by the artist are not idealised and romanticised but are firmly set in reality in almost a journalistic fashion. We see an old woman lost in thought and smoking a cigarette on the stairs to a house, a game of cards, the hanging up of laundry, sewing or chatting at the table. Apart from people, there are also many animals – hens walking around the courtyards, a goat sticking its head out from under the kitchen table. The apparent documentary style is accompanied by an element of creation, not only in synthesising and ornamenting scenes but also in combining characters who, for example, in reality, come from different neighbourhoods. In works made exclusively from stitched pieces of fabric, the figures of people and animals detach themselves from their surroundings and drift in the abstracted decorative space (where a rooster can outgrow a human in size) with no limitations.
Thus, the artist does not create a ‘sociological record’ in the style of Zofia Rydet; she does not catalogue all the elements of life and visual culture of Romani settlements but only provides us with selected snapshots observed from within the Romani community, combining realism with building an expressive visual dictionary of Romani culture. As she herself admits, at one point she was inspired by the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. In Mirga-Tas’ works, one can also see a kinship with Kerry James Marshall’s contemporary painting, which in a similar way reclaims the visuality of Afro-American culture, liberated from the colonial gaze.
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Mirga-Tas' strategy is a kind of insider ethnography that in its own way continues and responds to the work of her uncle Andrzej Mirga, an ethnographer who studied the Romani community from within. As the artist said 'he […] came from this world, spoke its language, visited places he knew well, where his family lived, photographed people who trusted him'. The photographs by Andrzej Mirga became the starting point for the exhibition The Right to Look at the Szara Kamienica Gallery in Kraków, curated by Wojciech Szymański and Delaine Le Bas. In her art, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas returns to the same neighbourhoods several decades later.
In addition to contemporary topics, Mirga-Tas’s work takes up one of the most important themes in the history of the Roma, although it is almost absent from the broader discourse – Porajmos (a term popularised by Ian Hancock meaning ‘the Devouring’), or the Romani Holocaust. In 2011, in Borzęcin Dolny, the artist created the wooden Monument to the Memory of the Holocaust of the Romani (Gypsies), with the silhouettes of a falling man and woman, to commemorate the local victims of Nazi crimes – the Romani people were one of the two ethnic groups, next to the Jews, designated by the Nazis for complete liquidation; according to estimates, the number of victims of the Porajmos may reach from two hundred thousand to half a million people. On the initiative of Adam Bartosz, the long-term director of the Tarnów District Museum and a researcher of Romani culture, the monument was erected in a forest, at the site where, in July 1942, the Nazis executed 29 Romani. The scale of the silence on the topic of the Romani victims of Nazism is attested to by the fact that this is the world’s first figural monument to commemorate the extermination. Anti-Romani prejudices became apparent when the monument was destroyed by unknown perpetrators in 2016. Soon, a copy was erected in the same place, while the artist kept the fragmented remains of the original as a separate work, involuntarily updated by the act of xenophobic vandalism.
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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is also active as an organiser, educator and activist. During her studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, she joined the ‘Harangos’ Romani Educational Association, which is active in the education of Romani children and youth. Together with the photographer Marta Kotlarska, she has been implementing the project Romani Snap for several years, constituting workshops for children teaching them the pinhole photography technique. Together with two other artists from the Bergitka Roma – Bogumiła Delimata and Krzysztof Gil – she founded the Romani Art movement in 2007.
In the same year, the Roma Pavilion was included in the 52nd Venice Biennale, a major milestone in the struggle for the visibility of art created by Romani artists, which has existed in a kind of limbo for decades – breaking both from the tendencies that dominate the official narratives of contemporary art and from the ideas about folk art, and consequently ignored by researchers of both. Timea Junghaus, the curator of the first Roma Pavilion in Venice, wrote:
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The concept of Romani contemporary art is one of the greatest achievements of the Roma emancipation movement launched in Europe in the late 1960s. The movement was critical of the more than six-hundred-year-old practices which resulted in the Roma becoming victims of depictions created exclusively by non-Roma. The iconography of European art has thrown them, as ‘Gypsies’, into a conceptual ghetto – an imaginarium created on the basis of false premises and the same schemes – inhabited by wild people, criminals, welfare recipients, exotic prostitutes and beautiful children living in extreme poverty, yet happy.
The first Roma Pavilion was also unique because, unlike other pavilions that have made their debut in recent years, such as those dedicated to African countries, it went beyond the format of national representation shaped in the 19th century, in the ‘century of nations’ when the Biennale was founded.
Mirga-Tas is also the originator of the international open-air events called Jaw Dikh! (in English: 'come and see!') held in Czarna Góra between 2012 and 2016. The small mountain town was visited mainly, but not exclusively, by Romani artists, who had a chance to meet and connect with one another. The open-air workshops strengthening the transnational integration of Romani artists, although organised in inconspicuous circumstances, also played one of the key roles from the point of view of contemporary Roma art. In 2017, the artist also co-founded the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (Eriac) in Berlin.
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Selected solo exhibitions:
- 2019 - Side Thawenca: Sewn with Threads, Antoni Rząsa Gallery, Zakopane
- 2018 - Medzi Svetmi, Diera do Sveta, Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia
- 2017 - On the Border, Polish Institute, Bratislava, Slovakia ; On the Road - Andro Drom, Mathare Art Gallery, Nairobi, Kenya
- 2016 - Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Nationaltheater, Skopje, Macedonia
- 2011 - Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Schindler Factory, Kraków
Selected group exhibitions:
- 2019 - Third Art Biennial in Timișoara, Romania; 44th Biennale of Painting Bielsko Autumn, Bielsko-Biała; Speaking in One’s Own Voice, Promocyjna Gallery, Warsaw
- 2018 - The Right to Look, Szara Kamienica Gallery, Kraków
- 2017 - Transcending the Past, Shaping the Future, ERIAC, Berlin, Niemc; The Universe Is Black, Moravian Gallery, Brno, Czech Republic; 42nd Biennial of Painting Bielsko Autumn, Bielsko-Biała
- 2016 - pany chłopy chłopy pany, BWA Sokół, Sądecki Ethnographic Park, Nowy Sącz; Kali Berga, Księgarnia | Exhibition, Kraków
- 2011 - International Sculpture Symposium, Bratislava, Slovakia; Romani Art, Ethnographic Museum, Warsaw
- 2008 - Romani Art, Ethnographic Museum, Tarnów