Małgorzata Mirga-Tas: Re-enchanting the World, Polish Pavilion at the 2022 Venice Biennale
The Polish Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition in Venice this year featured the vibrant textile installation Re-enchanting the World by Polish-Romani artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas. The project was curated by Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza and selected by a jury within a competition managed by the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. The Polish contribution to this year’s biennale is unique and the first of its kind, being the first-ever national pavilion represented by a Romani artist. Although there have been several editions of the Roma Pavilion in Venice since 2007 – events and exhibitions dedicated to Roma arts and culture in a global context – they have always been organized as collateral events because the regulations of the platform require one to be a sovereign country in order to mount an official national participation.
Mirga-Tas is an artist and activist born in Zakopane, Poland, in 1978, who works in a variety of media, encompassing sculpture, painting, and installation that often incorporate fabric recycled from old garments. She is also one of two female artists (alongside the Uzbek filmmaker Saodat Ismailova) whose work has been exhibited at both the Biennale and documenta fifteen. Both Mirga-Tas and Szymański, who is a curator and researcher of contemporary Romani art, debuted at the Biennale. Warsza’s curatorial work could be seen at the Arsenale in 2013, where she organized the experimental group exhibition Kamikaze Loggia for the Georgia Pavilion that explored the phenomena of unauthorized extensions of Soviet-era apartment buildings. Moreover, Warsza has previously worked with Mirga-Tas for the project HERSTORIES, 2019-21 at the 2021 Autostrada Biennale in Kosovo, dedicated to Romani women freeing themselves from traditional patriarchal environments.
Mirga-Tas’s conceptually and materially rich works challenge Romani stereotypes. Her textile installation Out of Egypt (2021) in Kassel celebrates Roma culture through the re-appropriation and critical reading of prejudicial narratives. Her Venice installation, entitled Re-enchanting the World, embodies an atlas of images in the form of handmade textile collages showing a constellation of scenes of everyday Romani culture. The work is a travelog in time and space achieved through the artist’s calendar-like sequence of twelve colorful panels that emulate the order of the zodiac signs, each divided into three bands showing historical scenes above, contemporary images below, and astrological signs in the center. Each band depicts specific art-historical archetypes as Mirga-Tas playfully challenges visual clichés and prejudices about the life of Roma that have persisted throughout the centuries. The panels cover the walls of the gallery transforming the pavilion into an intimate salon and are filled with characters the artist considers important to contemporary emancipatory movements within Romani groups.
The main structure of the installation is inspired by the composition of Renaissance frescos from the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. Divided into twelve equal parts, Mirga-Tas’s installation corresponds to the Palazzo’s Hall of the Months where the sequence of zodiac signs forms a mystical calendar that has never been fully deciphered by art historians. The 15th-century masterpiece attests to the flourishing of astrological knowledge among the elites of the Italian city-states of the time. Its proportions are almost identical to those of Re-enchanting the World, with each section of the fresco also split into three bands. The upper band represents an allegory or triumph of an ancient pagan deity, such as Minerva or Apollo who were deemed the patrons of respective constellations, while the lower band depicts scenes of earthy life under the rule of Duke Borso d’Este. The middle band is decorated with a zodiac sign and three corresponding decans, subdivisions of each sign in three phases that are linked to different celestial objects. The decans are represented by enigmatic figures that according to German art historian and theorist Aby Warburg were borrowed from Egyptian mythology.(Aby Warburg, “Italian Art and International Astrology in the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara,” in Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 1999), p. 572.)
The same chronological division is maintained in Mirga-Tas’s composition. However, for the upper band of her textile panels, the artist revisits Les Bohémiens, a series of engravings by Lorraine draftsman Jacques Callot realized in the first half of the 17th century.(Edward J. Sullivan, “Jacques Callot’s Les Bohémiens,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 2, 1977, pp. 217–21, p. 217. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3049633. Accessed Oct. 26, 2022.) These prints contain numerous elements that are stereotypical, even offensive to Romani people, such as inscriptions alleging their untrustworthiness. Reproducing the outlines of Callot’s characters, Mirga-Tas targets the original work’s representational clichés by appropriating iconographies from the elitist cultural sphere that disregarded them and narrating real Roma stories. The artist uses the same compositions, but fills the figures with colorful, chaotic, and sometimes kitschy recycled fabrics, allowing her to “cover” those stereotypes with something of her own.
Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, and Mirga-Tas’s recast narratives serve as an example of how to challenge obsolete stereotypes through aesthetic, nonviolent means. For example, the lower bands of Mirga-Tas’s installational collages depict scenes of daily life in Czarna Góra, a small Romani village in a mountainous area near the Slovakian border where the artist grew up. She still resides there and refers to herself as a representative of a settled sub-group of Bergitka Roma that forms most of the village’s population. The images and events shown range from sewing circles to playing cards to funeral processions. Most textile materials used by the artist come from people who the artist knows and often portrays in her works. Her textiles also include clothes from second-hand shops, which as the artist observes, most likely were produced in India or China then reached Poland from Western Europe. The upcycling of these fabrics and the employment of found objects, such as playing cards, pins, and earrings, adds another layer to her textiles’ journey. This theme of migration, already suggested by the work’s various art-historical references, receives both physical and iconographical dimensions. The figures visible in the installation’s central band are important Romani women and other personalities who have influenced the artist’s creative vision and shape today’s Roma communities. These personal decans and guardians include famous Romani singers and dancers, the artist’s relatives, friends, and other characters important to her, including art historian Aby Warburg, who the artist embues with magical forces.
The use of art-historical references in the work of Mirga-Tas is varied and extraordinarily compelling. The facade of the Polish Pavilion is decorated with panels recreating the layout of the Wheel of Fortune card from the 15th-century Visconti-Sforza Tarot. Traditionally, this card features four symbols of evangelists, each of whom also corresponds to a zodiac sign. Tarot cards and the frescos in Palazzo Schifanoia are also linked by the presence of astrological elements. Originally an aristocratic game, by the late 18th century tarot cards acquired their occult function and turned into a tool for fortune telling, thus becoming the expression of the force of fate. Mirga-Tas admits that the experience of having seen her grandmother using tarot cards has always made the artist think of her as a “magic person”(See https://www.raicultura.it/arte/articoli/2022/05/Magorzata-Mirga-Tas–4f82c064-95de-4f8b-bb0b-69a430d2850d.html (Accessed 10/29/2022).) and served as an example of female authority. Both the original fresco in Palazzo Schifanoia and Mirga-Tas’s work were collaborative projects, the latter being produced with the assistance of several craftswomen and craftsmen, including the artist’s relatives. For example, in the upper part of the March fresco by Francesco del Cossa, the right side features a group of needlewomen and weavers. In the corresponding panel in Mirga-Tas’s work, the lower level of the composition hides a cameo of the artist,(Małgorzata Mirga-Tas. Re-enchanting the World: Polish Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. Exhibition catalogue (Venice, 23 April–27 November 2022), Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza (eds), Zachęta – National Gallery of Art, Warsaw 2022, p. 67.) who is shown with her relatives creating textiles together. The conceptual framework of Re-enchanting the World relies on the trans-historical circulation of images relating to the way the artist challenges and disputes mainstream visual histories, as well as to the legend of the origins of Roma and the fact that today Romani culture is transnational.
Another important reference for one’s understanding of Mirga-Tas’s installation is the ground-breaking study by American-Italian sociologist Silvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, the title of which curators Szymański and Warsza borrow for their project. Federici’s study dwells on the communities’ potential to evidence capitalism’s flaws and resist its patriarchal bias. Several aspects of Mirga-Tas’s approach, such as collective handwork and the use of recycled materials, evoke the energy that was described by Federici as an opposition to the endlessly expanding neoliberal order of the world. A tribute to Federici’s writings is also present in the title of the Biennale itself, The Milk of Dreams, especially in one of the exhibition’s “historical capsules” entitled The Witch’s Cradle, which featured many female Surrealists who used the themes of magic, alchemy and diverse mythologies, all characterized by emancipatory impulses. (It should be noted that Federici was a guest speaker at one of the Biennale’s public programs in October.)
Indeed, the idea of communality is consistently articulated in Mirga-Tas’s oeuvre that acquires new notes within the horizon of today’s political ruptures and the deepening uncertainties of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Curators insist on how images and their meanings matter. Hence, the need to revise them. Several curators at this year’s biennale sought to expose how many cultures and peoples have been ignored by mainstream discourses. Through Mirga-Tas’s work, Szymański and Warsza highlight how the Roma community have long remained an “other” to dominant European culture, while also being a source of alternative wisdom because of its transnational nature. The righting of historical absence and misrepresentation of Roma echoes current debates about Eurocentric bias in various areas of culture and science, with artists and curators calling for decolonization and engagement with a broader framework for understanding and describing the world.
How, then, to sew up the world? For Mirga-Tas, by reappropriating canonical works of Western European art history and interweaving a Roma subjectivity to create new narratives. Through the act of sewing, the artist argues for the power of reconnecting in her constellation of found textiles, themes, and personalities, who come from different historical eras and cultures but coalesce to reflect her idealism. Re-enchanting the World manifests the artist’s mature expressive language as evinced in her previous exhibitions, while also offering an emotional and personal reading of the present state of society and the cultural role played by its minorities. Mirga-Tas’s employment of diverse clothing fragments and textiles pieces suggests that cultural co-existence doesn’t necessarily mean a homogeneous identity.
In the works of Leonora Carrington (whose children’s book, Milk of Dreams, inspired the title of Cecilia Alemani’s Biennale), the domestic space is a site of female empowerment, magic and imagination.(Alyce Mahon, “Daughters of the Minotaur: Women Surrealists’ Re-Enchantment of the World” in Biennale Arte 2022: The Milk of Dreams. Exhibition catalog (Venice, 23 April–27 November 2022), Cecilia Alemani et al. (eds), pp. 88-92.) For Mirga-Tas, the stories of real women who often live outside of ideology rooted in a meritocratic system become examples of emancipation and strength. According to the artist, her work speaks about women of her community to emphasize their ability to “foster the reality around them,” not the least because of their role in rearing the new generation.
Mirga-Tas’s central strategy is to contrast all forms of violence with empowering stories and images, which she does through metaphors of repair, resistance, and care. At the same time, the artist’s appropriation of zodiac symbols and the Wheel of Fortune element on the pavilion’s facade suggests another major motif in Re-enchanting the World: cyclicality. These astrological references are not incidental and dialogue perfectly with the surrealist themes seen throughout The Milk of Dreams. They speak to the very essence of human relationships with the cosmic realm accompanying any traveller as a map and a guard. In this sense, constellations are the ultimate allusion to migration and symbolize the most natural state of human personalities, that of dreaming and imagination, where images change their meaning in an endless cycle.