Wonderful People
Wonderful People

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Wonderful People

On the easternmost outskirts of Kraków, the modern suburb of Nowa Huta serves as a reminder of what could have been. Conceived in 1949 and intended to embody an urban proletarian ideal, the reality is that of an unfinished post-WW2 utopia, inextricable from its Communist past. In her new exhibition Siukar Manusia – translated as great, or wonderful people – at Frith Street Gallery, Małgorzata Mirga-Tas depicts ten representatives of the first generation of Nowa Huta’s Romani inhabitants. Her intimate series of textile portraits fashion an affirmative iconography of marginalised Roma communities that advocate that this is a place made greater by the sum of its parts.

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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Małgorzata Prusak, from the series Siukar Manusia, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

"The ghosts of the district’s inhabitants are summoned to the artist’s yawning canvas"

Approached with a patent warmth and restraint, Mirga-Tas presents the heroes and heroines of Nowa Huta in a style distinct from the Herculean 'new Roma' featured in 1950s propaganda. Instead, she opts for a series of contemplative portraits based on photographs sourced from family archives. The ghosts of the district’s inhabitants are summoned to the artist’s yawning canvas – measuring over two and half metres squared – memorialised in vibrant patchworked garms.

Siukar Manusia, Mirga-Tas’ first UK exhibition, follows the thread of the artist’s most ambitious work to date, Re-enchanting the World (2022) presented in the Polish Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. Inspired by the renaissance frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, the floor-to-ceiling tapestry was divided into three horizontal bands that storyboard mythical wanderings, the Romani European settlement and contemporary hometown life. The central belt includes dozens of portraits of people personally important to the artist including family members and neighbours, shepherding the rich history of the Romani people to the present day. It is from this central section that these new works depart.

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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Wanda Siwak, from the series Siukar Manusia, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

On entering the Soho gallery, we first meet Małgorzata Prusak observing a moment of pause beside a weathered silk tree, branches fraying in the same velvet night that cut through the Venice piece. During World War II, Prusak was placed in a forced-labour camp near Nowy Targ, along with her brother and parents. She would survive to become the first Roma in Nowa Huta to pass Poland’s secondary school final exams. Her presence sets the tone for the exhibition; an understated celebration of immense proportions.

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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, installation view Frith Street Gallery, Golden Square. 15 September–11 November 2023.
Photo: Ben Westoby
Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London.

"the artist stockpiles pre-loved fabrics donated by friends and family to dress her figures"

It's vital to note that the creation of the district of Nowa Huta is still considered the most ambitious project of urban planning in post-war Poland and a vast exercise in social engineering. However, it’s imagined function as a living laboratory for socialism was short-lived and by the 1990s, the 200,000 strong populace had become synonymous with drugs, crime and poverty. This image only perpetuated the denigration of its Roma citizens who for centuries had been typecast by gadjo’s (non-Romani people) and the Western world. Taking a critical approach which is not without tenderness, Mirga-Tas reclaims the voice of her forebears to stage the Roma people on their own terms. Calling on the sense of communion forged in times of hope, happiness and hardship, the artist stockpiles pre-loved fabrics donated by friends and family to dress her figures, imbuing them with new life and a corresponding immediacy.

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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Augustyn Gabor z córką Elżbietą / Augustyn Gabor with his daughter Elzbieta, 2022 Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Despite their crafted depictions of domesticity, it would be dismissive to lump these works under the umbrella of folk art. Mirga-Tas certainly makes a full and emphatic claim for something more. Here the gallery plays host to a meeting of collective histories that carousel like slides passing through a projector.

While all of Mirga-Tas’ subjects are unified by their habitancy of Nowa Huta, some share a particularly traumatic reality that has been hemmed into the fabric of Roma society. The Romani genocide that preceded and continued throughout the Nazi rule is often known as the ‘forgotten Holocaust’ owing to its relatively unacknowledged and undocumented history. An epithet disturbingly at odds with the 200,000 plus Romani’s estimated to have been murdered. Echoing an earlier work of art: a wooden sculpture, Monument to the Memory of the Holocaust of the Romani, erected in a forest in the south of Poland in 2011, Mirga-Tas provides ample space in Siukar Manusia for the memories of the asymmetrically commemorated survivors of the Romani genocide to unfold.

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Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, Krystyna Gil, from the series Siukar Manusia, 2022. Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

"a moment of pause beside a weathered silk tree"

We’re introduced separately to both Wanda Siwak and her nephew Edward Dunka. Siwak was a concentration camp prisoner during WWII who spent the entirety of her life searching for her daughter, who had been hidden from the Germans in an area that is now part of Ukraine. On her deathbed, she entrusted the search to Dunka, who would, in later life succeed in locating the family of Siwak’s daughter.

Across the room, agreeably settled in an armchair, elbows propped on its rests is Krystyna Gil, the woman whose life story gave rise to this expressive series. Unlike the other portraits comprising Siukar Manusia, hers is not based on a photograph donated from a private archive; instead, the artist used a frame from Gil’s account for the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies recorded in 1995. A Roma girl, Nowa Huta native, activist and Holocaust survivor, Gil played witness to history at some of its most inflammatory peaks earning her only a municipal reputation as the voice of the silenced.

What’s clear when spending time with Mirga-Tas’ soulful artworks is that these fibre portraits exist as microcarriers of history, an afterlife of images that depict a journey across centuries. In divine simplicity, the artist renders a requiem that declares her as a powerful sempstress of cultural memory and persistently crucial agent in the preservation of Romani narratives.

By Millen Brown-Ewens


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