Spark, burn every moment – reflections on a legend

Omara: These breasts became famous (because they fed the best and most beautiful on Earth), 2017, 55×43 cm, oil on fibreboard. Courtesy collection of Everybody Needs Art.

The works of Mara Oláh (1945-2020), internationally acclaimed contemporary Hungarian Roma painter of outstanding talent, are presented at the current edition of OFF-Biennale Budapest, within the framework of the RomaMoMA programme. The selection on view forms the basis of a small, yet clamorous (!) event series.

Omara (her artist name, or nom de guerre(!)) was characterised by her unapologetic plain talk. This is reflected in the visual quality of her captions, inscriptions, and other textual forms: the recurring exclamation point (!). Omara’s works are not simply works of art, but also symbolic visualisations of revolt against pervasive oppression.

The location for the exhibition is also emblematic: the Glove Factory Community Centre in the 8th District (of Budapest). This neighbourhood (home to the majority of Roma residents of Budapest) has hosted countless Roma cultural spaces that have taken on cultic significance: among others, Gallery8, and the Roma Parliament. It was in the latter edifice that the distinguished cultural magazine, Amaro Drom, had its editorial offices (and when it was terminated, left an enormous void in its wake). We invited the former editor of the magazine, Kata E. Fris, to share with us her knowledge she acquired from Omara with an account of a boundary object, to use a novel museological concept.

Spark, burn every moment 1

reflections on a legend 2

I made the acquaintance of Mara in the course of my work at the Roma Parliament and at Amaro Drom at the end of the 90s. You could enter Amaro – as we referred to the editorial office among ourselves – just a small room, through the modest kitchen. A typical studio apartment with tiny kitchen in the 8th District, and the aroma of coffee always wafted in. No matter who arrived, we already had the espresso on the stove. Great meetings and world-changing discussions might take place just hanging around the kitchen, while heated debates and passionate discourse were a common occurrence in the midst of phones ringing in the editorial office.

“Babes! My little knuckleheads!” – Mara hollered when she arrived.

She mesmerised us with her grand entrances, accompanied with passionate, wild gestures, rendering us speechless: we just gaped at her, listened to her. She never sat down, speaking in a ceaseless temperamental flow, expressing herself uproariously. She cussed incensedly, then roared in laughter. She made no bones about openly imparting her feelings and thoughts to us. Her lust for life was crushing.

I’m a witch – that’s what they say!, she shouted with a raspy laugh, when we asked her about fortune-telling. I don’t tell fortunes at home, only on TV: I don’t allow my time to be stolen!, she repeated.

At the same time, if she felt that someone in the offices was anxious, or had a problem they couldn’t resolve, she would offer charmingly, but decisively: “My love, shall I tell your fortune?”
There were those who jumped at the chance, but I always demurred. I feared the primaeval power that lived inside her. On such occasions, she just peered at me and commented: “My little diamond, you’re afraid of the future!”

There were many who only knew her from the small screen of Budapest TV, and then Ezo TV, and they didn’t think of her as a contemporary artist. But it was exactly the same woman that they either loved, or recoiled from, just as we did: the emancipated, direct Mara, who wouldn’t be bound by anyone else’s rules.
Upon her death, one of her admirers wrote: “Without her, Ezo TV is nothing: … She was the colour red in her pictures”.

I received a small self-portrait from her as a gift, painted on fibreboard, of her in her younger days. Practically a sketch. I put it into a simple wood frame, but whenever I glance at it, I see Mara before me: the jet-black of her hair, her daring décolletage, the vivid reds and oranges of her blouses, her clothing, and the scarlet of her pitted nail polish, her enormous Diva-worthy sunglasses, and of course, her proud posture and her head thrown back.

Réka, our impetuous, wild, feminist proofreader – always flawlessly made-up – was also never shy to show her décolletage. She loved beautiful bras, and she also adored flashing a glimpse of them. Mara, on the other hand, did not wear this practical item of clothing. If it happened that the two of them were at Amaro at the same time, they just flashed and surged their breasts, descending into howling laughter, and sharp criticism of weak and cowardly men. These were surreal moments.

In 2009 in Paris, wandering through the exhibition, Oniricon – arranged from Fellini’s dream-journals of 1968-1990 – this feeling came to me. I acknowledged, smiling to myself, if I were to adjust this vision to Mara, those two women in the middle of Josephstadt from the Book of Dreams, these existences drifted past each other from the Dreambook. My dear legends.

Kata E. Fris worked at Amaro Drom – Ember az emberért [Human for Human] Roma Foundation in Budapest from 1997-2001, realising human rights and arts programmes. In parallel, she worked on the Amaro Drom cultural and public life magazine, first as an editorial coordinator and manager, then as editor, from 2003 until the magazine’s forced termination in 2010. In 2002, she was invited to work at the municipal Cigány Ház [Gypsy House] – Romano Kher by director Jenő Zsigó, following their collaborative civil work. As Cultural Manager and events organiser, she worked on countless arts and professional programmes, contributing to the extremely rich, diverse and productive period for both the institution and the Roma community in Budapest. From the institution’s reorganisation in 2010 until 2014, Fris was communications coordinator for the EU project: Equal Treatment Authority. Since 2012, she is a community sociological researcher at the Jakab Gláser Memorial Foundation in Josephstadt (Budapest’s 8th District), also working to produce projects based upon this research. Within that framework, her short film, Félelem a falakra volt írva [Fear was Written on the Walls] premiered 6 April 2021.

Andrea Pócsik is a film historian and cultural researcher, and senior lecturer at Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest. Her pedagogical activity is devoted to engaged scholarship and methodological developments combining theory and practice. Her most important projects are based on critical film education: founding the Roma Visual Lab at ELTE University (Budapest), and the KineDok Pázmány Filmclub, as well as participating in the international European University Film Award, and recently in collaboration with tranzit.hu founding a community space for  informal learning and self-educational opportunities for students of lesser means. Apart from teaching, she is often involved in contemporary artistic and cultural projects, as a curator, organiser and expert. She publishes reviews, articles and book chapters on contemporary art and film, primarily in Hungarian, but also in German and English. She has conducted research on Roma representation within ELTE University’s Film, Media and Cultural Theory Doctoral Programme. A decade of her research resulted in a book published in 2017: Átkelések. A romaképkészítés (an)archeológiája [Passages: An (An)archaeology of Roma Image-Making] (Gondolat Kiadó). She contributed to the founding of the first international digital archive of the Roma, the RomArchive. Her recent research is based on memory and archival studies, currently as a Goethe-Institut fellow at the documenta Archive in Kassel, Germany.

[1] Margit Kaffka: Pagan Prayer
[2] This text was written to accompany the exhibition, ! – Omara Occupies the Sound-Space, a part of the RomaMoMA project, which is a long-term collaboration between @offbiennalebudapest and the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC) in Berlin.
Translation from Hungarian: Adele Eisenstein.
The 3rd edition of the OFF-Biennale takes place 24 April – 30 May 2021.
A theatrical reading takes place in the exhibition space Friday, 21 May at 6pm, and also livestreamed here: https://fb.me/e/QqGVLM81
For more info, see: https://offbiennale.hu/en/2021/program/1-program-romamoma

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