My feminism does not shout, but it tells stories: Małgorzata Mirga-Tas and Edis Galushi in conversation with Joanna Warsza

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, in collaboration with Edis Galushi: HERSTORIES, 2019-21, textile banners, various dimensions. Installation in progress. Photo: 3rd Autostrada Biennale, Prizren, Kosovo.

The third edition of the Autostrada Biennale launched 17 July in Kosovo. Extending between the cities of Prishtina, Prizren and Peja, What if a Journey… was curated by the Berlin-based curators Övül Durmusoglu and Joanna Warsza, and features Romani artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s work, HERSTORIES. For the installation, supported by ERIAC, Mirga-Tas worked with Romani artist and activist Edis Galushi and the local Roma community in Prizren to decorate a building of the Anadolu University in Prizren with textile portraits of Romani women role models. Please enjoy the informative interview conducted by co-curator Joanna Warsza with Małgorzata Mirga-Tas and Edis Galushi. 

Małgorzata, one of your techniques is to dress buildings. Here in Prizren in Kosovo, at the 3rd Autostrada Biennale, you produced textile banners of Romani herstories. Large, colourful fabrics sewn from clothing gathered from the community cover a windowless house at the river. Where did your idea of dressing the buildings come from?

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas: The idea of dressing or insulating houses and buildings with fabrics was born a few years ago, during the exhibition “pany chłopy chłopy pany” [masters peasants peasants masters] in an open-air museum in Nowy Sącz in Southern Poland. I decided to insulate a Romani house from the 1960s and 70s with fabrics and sewn images. Here in Prizren at the Autostrada Biennale, we present even bigger banners, called Herstories. Six images of remarkable Romani women in the form of large-format fabric banners are placed on the façade of a house at the river. The portraits of very often overlooked Roma women appear in public space, in the very multicultural city of Prizren. The banners remind me of campaign banners for a given cause, and I think that this makes sense: it is an artistic campaign, highlighting Roma culture, aiming to change the perception of not only the Romani people, but first of all of women, showing them as strong, proud and brave.

Edis, one of the women represented is your mother. Can you tell us who she is, and who are the other faces looking at us from this building? How did you decide to choose these characters?

Edis Galushi: We have chosen a variety of people who have left their traces in Romani culture, but also in the international arts. We have singer Esma Redzepova (MK), artist Delaine Le Bas (UK), activists Nicoleta Bitu (RO) and Shpresa Agushi (XK), as well as my mother Zinet Galushi, a simple inhabitant of Prizren, taking care of daily needs and interested in the craft of costume-making. The piece also features an anonymous portrait standing for all women. We chose them to give a wide range and somehow a picturesque view of both Romani resistance and the beauty of the culture.

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, in collaboration with Edis Galushi: HERSTORIES, 2019-21, textile banners, various dimensions. Photo: 3rd Autostrada Biennale, Prizren, Kosovo.

Małgorzata, you have been long interested in materials as carriers of history, very often taking pieces of fabric that people wore and literally inserting them into your patchworks and paintings. How do you see a relation between a fabric and a history?

MMT: The materials, clothing, and curtains from which I sew portraits are meant to give them additional energy and power. For a few years, I have been collecting things given to me by women in my family, from Roma neighbourhoods and friends. Sometimes I buy them in second-hand stores, as well. The idea of creating patchworks, sewn banners or tapestries from used materials has an additional overtone: it adds another meaning to the fabric. I can see life in them; I see emotions and feelings. Portraits sewn from the clothes of these or other Roma women gives them spirituality and magic. I personally feel moved when I see some of the scraps of material, knowing who they came from, who I saw in them, who they belonged to. It is also wonderful to feel that what I do is important to them, that they know they are a part of the project, a part of something bigger, a fight against racial, class and economic prejudice.

We are working on the installation in Prizren, a city which is proud of its multiculturalism and cohabitation of Albanian, Serbian, Turkish, Romani and Bosniak culture. Can you tell us, Edis, about Romani life in Kosovo?

EG: Romani people have a very long and strong tradition of living in the city of Prizren. Roma from Prizren have usually been the pioneers of the early Romani development and integration, and therefore today enjoy a higher living standard and position in society. Even though they do have their specific neighbourhoods in the city, they are not considered as ghettos but are an integral part of the city life. While it is true that Roma from Prizren are still looking forward to a more decent position in society, they still enjoy a quite higher status and standards in comparison with the Roma in other cities of Kosovo.

I was recently positively surprised to find out that one of the deputy cultural ministers of Kosovo, Sejnur Veshall, is Roma, and I feel uplifted to see how present Romani culture is in the country. But how does it look on a daily basis, Edis?

EG: It is true that Kosovo has good legislative documents that regulate equal participation and representation of its citizens. However, sometimes things do not resonate with the same representation in daily life as on paper. With regard to the cultural aspect, it is true that the Roma have been given a very good opportunity with a Roma person being appointed a Deputy Minister of Culture. Knowing that Sejnur Veshall has been quite active in the cultural representation of Roma, I do believe that his attitude and experience will be a positive influence in changing perception towards Romani culture. Nevertheless, this is not always the case with other Romani representatives who have been appointed into such high positions. We have incompetent people being appointed into important positions, and this is how the real position of the Romani community does not change at the same pace as the investment made into it.

Malgorzata, you sometimes say that you are a feminist of the minority. How exactly do you mean this?

MMT: To tell you the truth, I never thought of myself as a feminist. I associated feminism with the women’s movement of the 1920s, fighting for women’s rights, freedom and to break from the traditional male model of the world. Now I see it in a different way: minority feminism looks a bit different, but we are always fighting for the same thing – for freedom and choice, but without straying from our tradition and roots. Feminism of minority women does not mean a complete breakage from their culture. That is why in Prizren I have presented such amazing women, who with their lives and actions change the world around them, as well as the lives of others. I think there are many women like that: Roma warriors (I don’t think they even realise the impact they have on changing our society). For me, Roma identity is very important: you cannot separate yourself from it, you cannot talk about the important issues without being on the inside. You also have to be very careful and sensitive towards others, to what they feel and how they want to be represented. My feminism does not shout, but it tells stories: it talks about issues related to tradition, social and linguistic inequities. The ways in which we are talked about, what terms are used to describe our minority – that is very important.

You are also interested in what you call ‘re-enchanting the world’. Can you speak more about that?

MMT: In the life of every human being, there is a need for magic and enchantment, but not always: at certain moments, we should disenchant the existing world, moments, situations, negative emotions and paradigms. Working on a few selected topics related to the representation of Romani people in a stereotypical and stigmatising way, I try to disenchant and demythologise them by reversing the way in which we are being looked at. Recently I worked with curator Wojciech Szymański on disenchanting the image of the Roma in French draughtsman Jacques Callot’s graphics. I sewed large-scale tapestries, re-telling the story of these nomadic Roma, dressing them, giving them dignity and changing how they’re portrayed. I think that there are a lot of instances in which the image of Roma people is depicted in a stereotypical, mythologised way, and therefore, not only activism, but also art should be, and is, a tool in the fight against the omnipresent antigypsyism. In such small, seemingly insignificant moments, we should take up the fight, find the strength to disenchant our society, and lift the negative charm off of us. This is, of course, already happening, as we become more and more aware of our rights in the fight against exclusion and discrimination.

Edis, as an activist, how do you think art can function in society? Why do we need it?

EG: Generally speaking, art has always been a tool for the Roma to communicate with the outer world. I can freely say that arts and artefacts have been the greatest political power for the Roma to fight against oppression and all types of discrimination. Moreover, Romani arts have been one of the greatest values recognised by the non-Roma and continue to be one of the strongest assets of the Roma all over the world.

Małgorzata, this interview was commissioned in the context of reflection on a potential RomaMoMA museum. How would you imagine such a place?

MMT: It’s an interesting question. Of course, as a great museum, where Roma artists would have their place, a space to present their art. A place where a collection of works by Roma artists would be collected, and where there would be a space for curatorial and temporary exhibitions.

At the same time, on this occasion, a number of questions and doubts arise. First of all, do we need a museum as a physical building, an institution with a staff? What criteria should be adopted when creating a team working in a museum? Should it be only Roma, or maybe both Roma and non-Roma. I am a Roma advocate, but there are so many wonderful non-Roma curators and art historians who should be invited to cooperate, although the museum’s helm should be in Roma hands. ERIAC has been already operating for several years as a migrant museum, an institution of Roma Culture and Art.

Perhaps a museum, following the example of others, should have segments dealing with art, history and the present, as well as archiving, which seems to be already happening within ERIAC’s activities. Should the art presented there be a department of Roma artists only, or maybe also non-Roma artists, but dealing with the Roma theme. At the same time, I am afraid that such a museum could, in a sense, ghettoise Roma artists.

For the moment RomaMoMA is a blog – maybe it is a museum in the form of a blog?

MMT: RomaMoMA is an interesting blog. There is a clear need to exchange views and experiences. I watch what is happening on the RomaMoMA blog, and it is great to be a witness of what is happening on the European and global arena. I try to read all the articles. However, returning to the question of how I imagine the RomaMoMA museum, I don’t think I have one clear answer yet. However, I have the impression that, first of all, we should expand the collection of other contemporary art museums in the world by decolonising them and expanding their collection of Roma art. Wouldn’t that be the best solution for Roma artists? This is a process that takes time, but what is great is that it is beginning to materialise, as we speak.

HERSTORIES, 2019-21, (textile banners, various dimensions)

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas in collaboration with Edis Galushi, 3rd Autostrada Biennale

Curated by Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu & Joanna Warsza

Women featured:

Shpresa Agushi, Gnjilane, Women’s Rights Advocate

Nicoleta Bitu, Bucharest, Community Activist

Zinet Galushi, Prizren, Homemaker

Delaine Le Bas, London, Artist

Esma Redžepova [1943-2016], Skopje, Singer and Humanitarian

Anonymous / All Romani Women

Małgorzata Mirga-Tas is a Romani visual artist from Poland who, together with Romani activist Edis Galushi and members of the Romani community in Prizren, Kosovo, covered a house with a series of portraits of extraordinary Romani women, both local and international. Mirga-Tas has been compiling an affective archive of Romani herstories. Mirga-Tas’s collages are created from fragments of different fabrics by “throwing the material into the painting”. Many of the fabrics are taken directly from the wardrobes of the women depicted, and consist of bits of skirts, scarves, or shirts sewn onto curtains, drapes, bedclothes, or rags. The material employed literally carries history, traces of life and use, and energy. The curtains become the underlying architecture of the works and, at the same time, the visual basis for the creation of feminist narratives. “Based on many years of experience working with the Roma communities in Roma settlements, I have noticed that Roma women are gradually emancipating themselves from the patriarchal structures. More and more Roma women are active, they strive for change, they fight for education for their children, they want to have their voice heard in the usually very traditional Roma environment”. Mirga-Tas’s works present many crucial questions for our times: How do power relations relate to representation? What is the place of traditional art within the canon of contemporary art? What does minority feminism in a traditional community look like? Can there be a reciprocal acculturation, and, if so, how can the majority learn from the minority? Finally, can working on identity, especially one rooted in the experience of injustice, be an affirmative and emancipatory strategy rather than a reductionist, isolating one?

Among the rare Roma authors in Kosovo, Edis Galushi is noteworthy for his contribution to the heritage of Roma culture and literature through poetry and theatre. His theatre activism began at an early age, and in recent years he is particularly interested in one-act plays; he has written and acted in two such plays in the original Romani language. He works with many national and international artists, always trying to bring a better light to Roma culture.

Joanna Warsza is co-curator together with Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu of the 3rd Autostrada Biennale in Prizren, Kosovo, open through 11 September 2021.


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