Farija Mehmeti in conversation with Avni Mustafa
Farija Mehmeti: Untitled, Roma Women series, 2012-ongoing.
Farija, you are about to open an exhibition at Manifesta 14, a major cultural event. Can you tell us something about your background?
As is the case with everyone who lives, my childhood had good and bad periods, due to a difficult economic situation: we grew up in a poor family, where most of the jobs my father held were seasonal, while my mum was working in the village, cleaning houses. I went to primary school in my village, but was unfortunately unable to finish secondary school for financial reasons, so I only have primary education. I wanted to go on to secondary school but I couldn’t when my parents were unable to support me financially, so after primary school I helped my mum around the house. Another reason why I wasn’t able to register at the secondary school was that I didn’t have the documentation. I was able to register at the primary school, but then my documentation was lost. When I was a child, my dream was to become a clothes designer, and after primary school I started a short sewing course. My mum was a great source of influence, teaching me to make traditional Roma dishes, and I loved to bake and cook as a child.
When did you decide to become a painter?
Even though my dream was to become a clothes designer, in 2020 I saw my brother paint scenes of the life of the Roma, their condition and situation, and that motivated me to try my hand at painting. And I developed a passion for portraits, though I didn’t so much want to be a painter as I wanted to apply paint and colours and put down shapes.
Shortly after that, I was visited by Mr Paul Polansky, who looked at the portraits and asked me whether I could start painting Roma women. I said I’d give it a try. So, I began painting one portrait after another, with the help and mentorship of my brother, and I went on to develop this idea of painting Roma women in their traditional scarves, showing their emotions, their daily life, the inequality… I was greatly encouraged by Mr Polansky to continue painting.
Was it difficult to pursue your dream of becoming a painter as a Romani woman?
When I attended primary school in Lepina, the teachers would never give us good marks, my brother and I would not get a mark better than C, though since early childhood both my brother and I had displayed great talent in painting—the other children in our class would ask us to help them in art class. We were always seated in the back of the classroom, and I had no idea then that it was a form of discrimination. Looking back now, I realize it was.
I remember very well that we had to study way more than the others, and we were always given a C or a D, whereas our classmates didn’t have to study that much to get better marks.
Where do you find the motivation to go on working in the face of difficulties?
Bajram, my brother is my mentor. My very interest in painting arose as I watched him work, and he was very patient with me, taught me how to mix colours, apply shades and other painting skills. I still continue to learn a lot from him, and I really think I am blessed to have him for a mentor.
What are your plans for the future?
My childhood dream persists, and I would like to make what I paint—at least the scarves—a reality: I would like to design the traditional scarves that Roma women used to wear so as to ensure the traditional Roma way of dressing is not forgotten. Currently I am working on transferring the patterns of my portraits to traditional scarves; it’s a new technique I hope to master, because it is related to both painting and textile design, connecting the two. And, of course, a great gallery where we can do our exhibitions has long been a dream, and I really hope it will come true one day. All that is missing is the financial means.
What are your portraits about?
The portraits that I paint are a manifestation of my emotions and what I feel when I make them. I also address diverse issues that Roma women face, such as early marriage, the lack of education, social, economic and other issues, the most important of which is violence against women, which unfortunately still exists.
When they look at these paintings, people can see different things: some see beauty, others see the social stigma attached to being Romani, some see the pain these women experience.
How do you set about starting to paint? Is there a preparation ritual?
There is usually a preparation period when I think and make a mental image of what I’m going to paint, including the outlines and the colours—the whole painting, really—and then I start working. Sometimes, although very rarely, I am disappointed by the way the picture turns out, but you never know, somebody might like it, so I never throw a painting away.
Of course, inspiration plays an important role, and I am unable to begin painting without having a very specific inspiration.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change in life?
I would change, if I could, the issue of early marriage that we have in our community. And help more Roma children excel at school.
It’s been a long-held dream to have my own gallery.
I would create peace in the world and more happiness for people.
Do you have a message to those who read about you?
My message to everyone is to get along, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or the colour of their skin. Be more understanding of each other. And for the Roma: we shouldn’t lose hope, no matter how difficult life is.
More information: https://eriac.org/manifesta-14/
Roma Rajni: RomaMoMA Library, ft. Daniel Baker and Farija Mehmeti
21 July – 30 October 2022, National Library of Kosovo, Prishtina
Farija Mehmeti: Untitled, Roma Women series, 2012 – ongoing. Photo/collage: Andrea Petrus
The project is implemented within the framework of Manifesta 14 Western Balkans project, and is co-funded by the European Union.