As you enter the Polish Pavillion at the Venice Biennale 2022 you are surrounded by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’ stunning floor-to-ceiling hand-stitched tapestry panels, richly depicting mostly female protagonists in everyday life. If you had a lucky chance to visit the Renaissance Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, you would most likely soon discover in Mirga-Tas’ images myriad allusions to the Palazzo’s splendid ‘Hall of the Months’ cycle of frescoes portraying Olympian gods, astrological figures, and scenes from court life in Ferrara. The name of the Ferara palazzo derives from the phrase ‘schivar la noia’, meaning ‘escape from boredom’, which accurately defines the purpose of this splendid architectural gem—built for the leisure of the powerful Este family over 500 years ago.
Here is the twist: Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is a contemporary Polish-Roma artist, and her characters’ distinct Romani identity is clearly manifested throughout the magnificent ‘picture palace’ she has recreated here. For the first time in the over 120 year history of the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, a Roma artist is representing a national pavilion. In Re-enchanting the World Malgorzata Mirga-Tas draws on the Shifanoia interior—its symbols and layout—as visual and ideological springboards to reimagine the place of the Romani poeple, the notoriously persecuted ‘other’, within the contexts of Western history of power and art-centricity.
Form, symbol, and narrative fuse seamlessly in Mirga-Tas’ reconstructed version of the Renaissance palace interior to propose a new narrative about images which cross-pollinate all cultures. The extensive catalog of the exhibition references Malgorzata Mirga-Tas’ approach—her use of representations from Schifanoia while transforming the key players to Polish-Roma protagonists—in context of German art historian (or “image historian” as he preferred to be called) Aby Warburg’s concept of ‘Bildwanderung’, the migration of images. Astrological signs, allegories of months, cyclicity of symbols across time and geographies—India, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, and Europe—are integrated in the narratives. Each of the twelve fabrics presented in the Pavilion are divided into three horizontal sections which highlight a different aspect of the Roma people’s life and history.
The upper section depicts the history of Romani journeys across Europe, referencing the bigoted 17th century engraving of the Lorraine printmaker Jacques Callot which were heavily embedded with anti-Roma stereotypes. Mirga-Tas’ images counterpoint that narrative. The Olympian gods depicted at the upper belt of the great hall of the Palazzo Schifanoia give way to a vibrant procession of Romani wanderers through changing seasons, utilizing a common early-Renaissance method of telling stories through continuous images: depicting the same figures at different times in a single image. Within this long procession which lasts twelve months, we encounter the same characters—a woman with a headscarf, a cheery boy carrying a cauldron on his head, donkeys, horses, birds and trees changing foliage over seasons.
The middle section focuses on the female perspective. Mirga-Tas has been renowned for creating an impressive body of works dedicated to the important women in her life. By combining real woman representatives of the Roma community with symbols from magic and astrology such as tarot cards and zodiac signs from Palazzo Schifanoia, the artist transforms these characters into mythical goddesses and prophetesses. The lower section consists of twelve paintings depicting contemporary everyday life in Czarna Góra, the artist’s home village in Poland and the areas to which she is most closely connected—Podhale, in the south of Małopolska, and the multicultural Spisz. They also mainly focus on women, their relationships, and shared activities. “Selecting a few topics related to the representation of Romani people in a stereotypical and stigmatizing way, I try to disenchant and demythologize them by reversing how we are being seen,” says Malgorzata Mirga-Tas.
But Mirga-Tas’ re-enchantment goes well beyond appropriation or agendas. Although keeping in mind Aby Warburg’s notions of image migration and the appropriation of Schifanoia frescoes add rich layers to our overall experience of this colossal installation, its powerful and layered presence comes across even when you don’t know a thing about that art historical context. It is poignant without being didactic, erudite without being dry, heartfelt without being sentimental. Its visceral and intricate visual cues entice you to take a close look at the characters, marvel at the unravelling narratives, wonder how they are made. It invites you to join in these characters’ daily communal life, while deciphering how the mundane tangles with the mythical to create an epic universal overview. The tragic history and stereotyping of the Romani people lurk underneath and that makes it potent without an overt depiction of atrocities. The strong sense of life, of connection between the protagonists who are going about their daily life, as well as the communal effort that goes into making these images on fabric, altogether sip into this room and make it, as co-curators Wojciech Szymanski and Joanna Warsza say “a temporary asylum, offering the viewers hope and respite”. You may sit in one of the comfortable chairs, take your time to absorb the surrounding re-enchantment, and dig into your own humanity, thinking where you stand in relation to this larger scheme of things.
All images courtesy of the writer.