The Roma Artist Sewing a New History for Her People

The pale lavender fabric in the artist’s studio has a history. Embroidered with silver thread in a floral pattern, the material was once a dress, before Roma people in Sweden gave it to Malgorzata Mirga-Tas. In her hands, it had been cut up and combined with other fabrics and delicate paint strokes to create a portrait of a Roma community leader. In the artist’s vibrantly patterned collage, the woman appears relaxed and powerful as she hangs bright yellow clothes on a washing line, her face turned from the viewer’s gaze.

The portrait was commissioned for “I Have a Dream,” a solo show by Mirga-Tas, a Polish Roma artist, at the Goteborgs Konsthall in Gothenburg, Sweden. Running through April 16, the exhibition features several more portraits of influential Roma women and scenes from Roma life, some made with locally donated fabrics. It is the first major presentation by Mirga-Tas, 44, since a spectacular pavilion of her work represented Poland at the Venice Biennale.

Although her ethnic group is the largest minority in Europe, Mirga-Tas was the first Roma artist to represent any country at the art event, presenting 12 richly colored floor-to-ceiling textiles that tenderly depict everyday scenes of Roma life, along with historical scenes and astrological symbols. For a group that has been persecuted for centuries, and is still widely misunderstood today, Mirga-Tas’s sensitive depictions are a rare chance for the Roma to be seen on their own terms, both as a vibrant contemporary community and as a people with a rich heritage.

“It’s important,” Mirga-Tas said in an interview. “This is part of our Roma history.”

Works by Mirga-Tas on display in the exhibition “I Have a Dream” at the Goteborgs Konsthall in Gothenburg, Sweden, from left: “Maria’s Romani Family,” “Diana Nyman Near Her House” and “Children Coming for Milk.”Credit…Hendrik Zeitler

Mirga-Tas’s work space is a single 800-square-foot room in an out-of-town commercial block near the town of Nowy Targ, in Poland’s Tatra Mountains. During a recent visit, a hodgepodge of used fabric cascaded in piles along the walls, her childhood curtains next to a skirt from a nearby thrift store. Mirga-Tas said she knew where every fabric was within the morass.

The artist explained that she works from photographs, which she selects in consultation with her subjects, so that they can influence the way they are seen. She sketches her characters on paper first, then enlarges the drawings on a photocopier before “dressing them up” with fabrics on a large table, she said. A team of assistants, including her aunt, then sew the parts together, and Mirga-Tas paints in the details of faces and hands.

She lives in the nearby ski resort town of Czarna Gora, in a Roma settlement of around 100 inhabitants where she grew up, and where she returned after studying sculpture in the nearby city of Krakow. Although traditionally, Roma communities moved around, nowadays most groups are settled. Mirga-Tas’s extended family has lived in the settlement since the 1940s.

Mirga-Tas sketches her characters on paper first, then enlarges the drawings on a photocopier and transfers them onto canvas.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
A team of assistants then sews fabrics onto the designs.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times
Mirga-Tas in her studio. Some of the fabrics the artist works with are donated by members of Roma communities; others are sourced from thrift stores.Credit…Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

Roma people have experienced centuries of persecution and violence in Europe, including enslavement and forced sterilization; hundreds of thousands were murdered in the Holocaust. This history continues to have an impact on Roma people, who today live mostly in Central and Eastern Europe. While most people in Mirga-Tas’s settlement have access to education, housing and work, this is not true for all Roma communities in Europe. According to a 2021 study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 48 percent of Roma people in E.U. countries are living in severe material deprivation, and their life expectancy is around 10 years less than the E.U. average.

“What we see in Central and Eastern Europe is a very blunt type of institutional racism,” said Margareta Matache, a lecturer at Harvard who researches anti-Roma racism in Europe. “I’m talking about school segregation and police killings,” she said, adding that the scale of historical persecution was rarely acknowledged.

“One of the reasons why we can’t really reconcile with the past and understand the realities of the Roma today is because we don’t know, as a society, what the past of the Roma looks like,” said Matache.

This is partly because the story of the Roma was often told by others, who frequently depicted them as unhygienic, unclothed thieves. Mirga-Tas has made several works based on the photography archive of her uncle, Andrzej Mirga, an ethnographer who was active in the 1980s and whose photographs challenge those racist tropes. One of his shots depicts a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, who looks up from her bed, her lined face firmly gazing toward the viewer. Mirga-Tas has turned her uncle’s black-and-white photo into a brightly clashing three-part folding screen, centering the woman’s resilient, probing face.

In her 2021 series “Out of Egypt,” Mirga-Tas used as source material four prints by Jacques Callot, a 17th-century printmaker, in which Roma people are depicted as bawdy, lazy charlatans. For centuries, Mirga-Tas said, European artists portrayed Roma people in this way, perpetuating myths that she described as excuses for hate. In her reimagining of Callot’s scenes, the characters appear as dignified adventurers, traveling on horseback through colorful landscapes of patterned textiles.

“She re-appropriates those pictures,” said Wojciech Szymanski, a Warsaw-based academic who was one of the curators of the Polish pavilion at Venice. He noted that the response to Mirga-Tas’s work, which some had previously dismissed as “folk art,” has changed since her show at Venice, and that the international art world’s recent interest in “decolonization” was leading critics and curators to reconsider the perspectives of previously ignored groups.

“Family Visit” (2017), which is on show at the Goteborgs Konsthall.Credit…via Małgorzata Mirga-Tas
“Three Graces” (2018), which also features in the exhibition.Credit…via Małgorzata Mirga-Tas

Last year, Mirga-Tas was one of the few artists whose work appeared in both the Venice Biennale and Documenta, arguably the two most important contemporary art exhibitions. Yet outside the bubble of the art world, she has also built her own network. In 2010, Mirga-Tas founded Jaw Dikh, a foundation that hosts an annual summer residency program in Czarna Gora for Roma artists from across Europe. There, participants discuss strategies for “how to be part of the mainstream of the art world,” she said. “Because we’re invisible.”

She added that she hoped to use her recently enlarged platform to share more stories of Roma history. One of the works in the Gothenburg show depicts the white buses that freed Scandinavian prisoners from German concentration camps after World War II. Mirga-Tas explained that when those buses arrived to collect survivors and take them to safety in Sweden, most Roma were not allowed to board: Sweden barred entry to Roma people until 1954. “For me, it was shocking what happened there,” she said.

Unlike in most of the artist’s work, there are no faces in this piece, simply a long line of stern vehicles with dark windows. The stories of the passengers, and those left behind, are lost to the past.

I Have a Dream
Through April 16 at the Goteborgs Konsthall in Gothenburg, Sweden;

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