In the body of work by the Polish artist of Roma descent, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, a constant thematic thread weaves through her works—an exploration of her roots, channeled through the language of art as a means of reflection and transgression. Through her visually arresting compositions, Mirga-Tas challenges the pervasive stigmatisation associated with Roma identity and femininity that have been constructed over centuries and imposed by representatives of society’s majority. In doing so, she constructs an intimate narrative around Roma culture. Her work serves as both a form of resistance and a vehicle for intellectual and creative decolonisation, firmly anchored in a profound sense of ethnic pride and self-acceptance. The process of Roma emancipation, at its core, entails the (re)shaping of individual subjectivities. Concurrently, it demands a critical examination of the stereotypes attributed to Roma, a dialogue that extends into the realms of politics, academia, and culture. By crafting their own narratives, the Roma community reclaims agency over the knowledge and imagery that the Gadjo (non-Roma) society has constructed without the participation of the Roma themselves. Through her visual storytelling, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas not only provides structure to their representation, but also asserts their self-definition, firmly opposing the widespread discrimination that the Roma communities experience.
In her first solo exhibition, Jangare, showcased at the Foksal Gallery Foundation during Warsaw Gallery Weekend 2023, the artist retraces her artistic origins. Although she owes her prominence to monumental textiles - presented, among others, at the 59th Venice Biennale in the Polish Pavilion in 2022 - she began with sculpture. She graduated from the Antoni Kenar Secondary State School of Fine Arts in Zakopane and the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, in the Faculty of Sculpture under the mentorship of Professor Józef Sękowski.
Jangare, derived from jangar signifying "coal" in Romani, comprises five human figures crafted from wax and soot. These figures bear a striking resemblance to the traditional bengoro, artefacts from Roma culture used for divination and warding off evil charms. Constructed with warm wax, human hair, animal bones, and beads, the bengoro were mystical and foreboding, symbolising adversity, suffering, illness, and mortality.
Mirga-Tas undertakes a transformative endeavour by recontextualising the bengoro, imbuing them with positive connotations and elevating them to the status of totemic deities intended for protection. Much like the Slavic Światowid, the four Jangare figures gaze towards the four cardinal directions, symbolising omniscience and forging a mystical bridge between the human and the divine. The fifth Jangar figure remains incomplete, in the process of taking form, serving as a poignant representation of humanity's inherent imperfection in mirroring the divine.
The selection of materials for the Jangare sculptures carries profound significance. In Romani culture, wax possesses unique properties, both practical and mystical. Its value lies not only in its reusability and malleability but also in its sacred essence. In some Roma funerary traditions, burning candles accompany the deceased during the vigil, with the wax dripping from these candles collected and placed within the grave.
In alignment with Roma magical traditions, Mirga-Tas employs soot in the creation of the Jangare figures. Soot, metaphorically, emerges as an amorphous substance during combustion. Coal, a universal element found in the cosmos, nature, and the human body, crystallises into diamonds in its purest form. As celestial beings, the Jangare figures are dark- kalo, corresponding to the physical appearance of the the Roma themselves, whose distinct skin tone renders them hyper- visible and subjects them to brutal discrimination. The crafting of these black deities serves as an affirmation of the Roma community, often labeled as the 'Blacks of Europe.’
Pendant for figural sculptures is Ryćhino, a life-sized animal figure cast, like the Jangare, in wax and soot. The silhouette of the bear consistently recurs in Mirga-Tas's oeuvre, appearing in her paintings, large-scale textiles, screens, and sculptures. In Roma culture, tracing its roots back to India, the bear holds a unique status. Among certain Roma communities, it was customary to tame wild animals, including bears, for street performances and royal courts. Originating in the 17th century within the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (present-day Belarus), the Smorgon Academy was a hub for training bears. Some Roma families adopted surnames derived from bear training, such as Ursarii or Ryćiara.
For Mirga-Tas, the bear symbolizes a mystical entity, both transgressive due to its human-like features and possessing extraordinary power that bridges the human and natural realms. Simultaneously, the bear embodies familiarity and habituation.
Notably, Ryćhino represents an ongoing collaborative project by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas and Katarzyna Depta-Garapich, initiated in 2019. Exhibitions such as Three Hundred Devils You Ate at the Władysław Hasior Gallery (2022) and the Skala Gallery (2023), complemented by performances and social initiatives, restore the bear's figure as a symbol of a mythical might, inspiring not only respect, but also fear. This project, perched on the borders of magic, legend, and ecology, also underscores concern for endangered species, whose absence in southern Poland is intricately entwined with local folklore.
The exhibition is complemented by textiles accompanying the sculptures, which point to the sources of the symbols the sculptures present. The works are based on photographs from the Berlin archives of the Kunstbibliothek at the Staatliche Museen and the Landesarchiv. The seemingly fairy-tale-like Rychino Andro Foros is cropped from one of many photographs showing Roma with trained bears on the streets of pre-war Berlin. Placing the animals in a colorful collage setting brings them out of the dark context of violence and oppression.
The portrait of two women, Romnija, depicts inmates of the Berlin-Marzahn forced labor camp. In preparation for the 1936 Olympics, the National Socialists imprisoned all Roma and Sinti living in Berlin. Under harsh conditions, forced labor and constant supervision, a total of 1,200 people lived crowded together in the camp. From 1943, the internees were systematically deported to concentration and extermination camps, where an estimated 500,000 European Roma and Sinti were murdered by the end of the war. Today we know nothing about the fate of the women portrayed by Mirga-Tas. The photographic originals convey to us their image from the perspective of the Nazi executioners. Moving them to a different landscape is an attempt to free the portrayed from this racist gaze and give them new dignity.
Dr. Anna Mirga-Kruszelnicka
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Jangare, 2023, Foksal Gallery Foundation, exhibition views, photo Marek Gardulski