Always First

5 January 2023

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is one of Poland’s most recognisable and widely-exhibited contemporary artists, but her path to success has been long and twisted.

Author: Wojciech Szymański

In recent years, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas has become one of the most important voices on the contemporary art scene in Poland and abroad. Her artworks are phenomenal, dazzling with their colours, textures, ornamentations and stories, while her unique artistic langue – developed slowly over many years – is rooted in her Romani background and the Spisz and Podhale regions her family hails from; both have become permanent fixtures at some of the most important galleries in Poland and Europe. Let’s just say that just in 2022 Mirga-Tas took part in two of the most important regular events of the art world: in April she launched her individual exhibition Re-enchanting the World at the Polonia pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, and in June she was one of the participants in the group presentation One Day We Shall Celebrate Again as part of the 15th documenta exhibition in Kassel. She closes the year with the exhibition Travelling Images at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków (opening on 1 December), featuring her latest artworks, including a site-specific piece prepared especially for the venue, alongside a selection of earlier works.

Always first
You could say that Mirga-Tas has always been the first: born in 1978, she was the first Romani artist to graduate from the Antoni Kenar Art School in Zakopane, and the first Romani student at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, graduating in 2004 to become Poland’s first university-educated Romani artist. In 2022, Mirga-Tas became the first Romani artist to have her works showed at the Venice Bienniale and the first to represent any nation at this prestigious event. And there’s more: Mirga-Tas is the first Romani artist to have been awarded the prestigious Paszport award by the “Polityka” weekly (2020) in the visual arts category and the O!Lśnienia Cultural Prize (2022), and the first Romani artist whose works have been aquired by important art institutions in Poland (Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź) and abroad (Tate Modern in London).

However, this spectacular success took a long time to achieve, and the artist worked long and hard to find international acclaim. Having always been the first has been a burden at times, and her pioneering role has all too frequently involved breaking through racist stereotypes and prejudice.

The way
The artist has said in numerous interviews and private conversations that after graduation she experienced a long period of receiving no commissions from galleries, museums and contemporary art centres. Instead, she was regularly invited by ethnographic museums and galleries, which – most likely in good faith and without realising – upheld the stereotypes of Romani folk art. This fact, and her invisibility in (not to say absence from) the contemporary art world – which has been as guilty of the damage of ethnographisation as ethnographic scholars – meant the artist decided to take matters in her own hands and became a social activist. She remains active by hosting art workshops for children and young people from Romani communities in southern Małopolska, participating in regular events commemorating the Romani and Sinti Genocide and working with Romani associations throughout Europe and women from Romani communities in Poland, Kosovo, Sweden and Estonia. Together with other Romani students, Mirga-Tas founded the Harangos Roma Educational Association, the Romani Art Group and the Jaw Dikh Foundation providing a platform for Romani artists from all over Europe. Every year she invites other members to outdoor artistic meetings at her favourite place in the world: her home village of Czarna Góra in the Spisz region.

Czarna Góra
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas has had close ties with the village her entire life: she still lives and works there, and it is without doubt the most important reference point in her art. Her numerous portraits and genre scenes are frequently snapshots of Romani life captured in Czarna Góra. Most of the local residents, including the artist herself, are members of the Bergitka Roma community. Her family settled in the region back in the 18th century and remains in the Spisz and Podhale lands until today. Czarna Góra is home to other members of the Mirga family, including Małgorzata’s uncle Andrzej, the first Romani ethnologist in Poland whose black-and-white photos have served as inspiration for many of her paintings; the poet and author Jan Mirga, also an uncle; and cousins Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka and Elżbieta Mirga-Wójtowicz – researchers and social activists. Other notable locals include the poet and singer Teresa Mirga (no relation), and of course Małgorzata’s aunts, mother and grandmother – subjects of her paintings.

Her own story told in her own voice
Romani women play a particularly important role in Mirga-Tas’s work, and they have a powerful influence on the subject of her art and how she makes it. Although she originally specialised in sculpture, today she rarely works in the medium. She mainly creates large-scale paintings using her own techniques. She frequently reaches for fabrics, using clothes she finds at second-hand shops or directly from women from Czarna Góra. Frequently, she makes portraits of women using scraps of fabrics of their own clothes. As a result, her compositions are rich in textures, partly painted, partly drawn, partly embroidered and sewn from bits of cloth and often adorned with items such as jewellery, trinkets, playing cards, net curtains and rosaries. Perhaps Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s works could be best described as collages, although she frequently refers to them as patchworks. Their sheer scale means she rarely works on them alone – instead, when preparing exhibitions, she engages with women from local Romani communities to collectively create artworks which are her own histories and herstories told in her own, Romani voice.

Wojciech Szymański

photo by Daniel Rumiancew
Curator, critic and art historian, author and editor of art books. In 2022 he co-curated Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s exhibition Re-enchanting the World at the 59th Venice Bienniale, and prepared the exhibition Travelling Images with Natalia Żak at the International Cultural Centre in Kraków. He works at the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw.

The text was published in the 4/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

Travelling Images: Małgorzata Mirga-Tas
International Cultural Centre
2.12.2022 – 5.03.2023


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