VENICE — The 59th Venice Biennale is one presenting many firsts: the first Black American woman to represent the United States (Simone Leigh), the first Black woman to represent Britain (Sonia Boyce), the first Franco-Algerian woman to represent France (Zineb Sedira), the first time Scandinavia’s indigenous people, the Samí, have represented the Nordic pavilion.

The Polish pavilion is no exception. For the first time in its history, a Roma woman, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, has been selected to exhibit in a national pavilion. As a Pole, I cannot overstate the significance of Mirga-Tas representing the country that Roma have called their home for nearly 600 years. The history of the Roma and Sinti in Poland and Europe is that of marginalization, exclusion, misrepresentation, and persecution, which culminated in the systematic mass murder of Roma and Sinti during the Holocaust. In view of this history, Mirga-Tas’s work inside the Polish pavilion enters uncharted territory. Her textile installation, Re-Enchanting the World, repositions Romani culture within the Western European canon through a narrative that begins in the 17th century and ends with depictions of Mirga-Tas’s Roma community in southeastern Poland.

Mirga-Tas’s work consists of 12 panels, each divided into three horizontal bands. The top band of each panel draws on a series of etchings created between 1621 and 1631, entitled The Gypsies (Les Bohémiens), by French artist Jacques Callot. Callot’s Les Bohémiens offers a visual checklist of stereotypes commonly associated with Roma (portraying them, for example, as fortune tellers partially clothed in rags, engaging in “indecent” behavior, or stealing livestock; or as “foreigners” to be distrusted). According to Mirga-Tas and the pavilion’s curators, Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza, Callot’s prints are a means to reclaim the narrative and visual misrepresentations of Roma life and identity.

Detail of Re-Enchanting the World with a self-portrait of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas on the far left (photo Viktor Witkowski/Hyperallergic)

To solidify the artist’s repositioning of Roma visual culture, Mirga-Tas’s panels mimic the compositional structure of the Hall of the Months frescos from the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy: three horizontal bands arranged vertically to form one panel, each containing a distinct narrative. Twelve zodiac signs from the Hall of the Months frescos appear in the middle section of Mirga-Tas’s panels to emphasize the cyclical nature of time and the odyssey of the Roma. Each zodiac sign is accompanied by striking portraits of mostly Roma women. During an artist talk on June 4 at Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, the artist identified some of these women: the first Roma tram conductor in Poland, a Roma Holocaust survivor, Roma artists and community activists, and her own sister. As necessary and overdue as the art historical framing is, Mirga-Tas’s work shines strongest when her individuals are recognizable as specific people, ready to meet our gaze, filling each panel with their presence while confronting centuries-long prejudices and misrepresentations.

The installation’s bottom band takes viewers to the artist’s hometown of Czarna Góra, in the Tatra mountains of southeastern Poland. Leaving the allegorical realm of the upper bands, she presents an intimate look into her community. We witness social gatherings such as a funeral procession, a game of cards, playing children, women conversing inside a home, people of different generations harvesting potatoes in a field. Examples of domestic labor traditionally affiliated with women’s work, like doing laundry, plucking chickens, or sewing, point to an issue Mirga-Tas addressed in her Zachęta talk. She referred to herself as a “feminist of a minority” and stated that being an artist as a Roma woman is not yet a given.

Through a combination of embroidery and sewing, she imbues domestic crafts with a mixture of art and Roma history, personal experience, and epic storytelling, with a nod to the “high art” of tapestry. Her choice of material for this installation reflects her commitment to her community and the importance of sustainability in the face of fast fashion. Most of her fabric is from second-hand clothing that has been sourced from her friends, neighbors, family members, and local thrift stores. In some instances, individuals depicted in her panels are composed from their own clothing. And she frequently names her collaborators: her aunt, Stanisława Mirga; her friend, seamstress and fellow activist Halina Bednarz; educator Małgorzata Brońska; and others. The blending of life and art has rarely been this poetic, this intertwined, and this inseparable from the artist and her community.  

Installation view of Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s Re-Enchanting the World at the Polish Pavilion, Venice Biennale

Mirga-Tas’s approach to making work that dignifies her community stands in stark contrast to another of this year’s national pavilions at the biennale, Francis Alÿs’s The Nature of the Game at the Belgian Pavilion. Alÿs’s collection of short films, which document children at play in different countries across the globe, often in conflict zones, offers an example of the long and difficult road ahead in de-colonizing parts of the established art world. The universalizing message is, no matter the circumstances, children will always be united in play. This work has been overwhelmingly praised by the international art press without ever raising the question about the power dynamic between the artist, his camera, and his subjects. 

Re-Enchanting the World, on the other hand, gives profound meaning to the concept of community-based work. Yet the progressive spirit that has enabled Mirga-Tas’s achievement at the biennale is fragile. Will more Roma artist become visible on a national or international stage? Will more artists practice a community-driven approach that avoids the othering gaze and bland generalizations? Will more artists elevate the individual above a narrative about universality? At the end of the day, it takes more than one artist to bring an entire community to life. Once the Venice Biennale’s dust has settled my hope is that all those communities brought to our attention by Mirga-Tas, Leigh, Boyce, Sedira, and others will hold a permanent place within the art world — beyond trends and goodwill gestures.

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s Re-Enchanting the World represents the Polish Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, on view through November 27. The pavilion was curated by Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza.

Born in Poland, Viktor Witkowski is a painter and filmmaker who lived in Germany, France, and the U.S. before moving to Vermont where he teaches, makes art, and writes on Same Old Art. He is currently...