The 59th Venice Art Biennale, curated by Cecilia Alemani, has just ended, with a selection of 1433 works and objects, composing an imaginary journey through three thematic areas: the representation of bodies and their metamorphoses; the relationship between individuals and technologies; and the links between bodies and the Earth.
I walked through the exhibition spaces of the Giardino, the Arsenale and the various national pavilions, bewildered by the spread of such gratuitous vulgarity, pornography, ugliness, stereotyped negritude and common morbidity.
Back in 2008, Gillo Dorfles in his book ‘Horror Pleni. La (in)civiltà del rumore” (The (in)civilisation of noise) spoke of an art that is meant to be disgusting, truculent, invaded by the posthuman and the mercantile that has broken “the transcendent film that differentiated it from every other human product”.
I have sought, as in all these years and in my previous articles, the presence of works that privileged the textile medium, viewed from time to time as anti-rhetorical, ethnic, identitarian, feminist, manual, as a mode that enhances the pleasure of making and of doing well, with the idea of presenting them to those who could not see them directly.
The textile works were actually many, from different countries and continents, some of them of great visual impact, refined execution and original development; this time I chose one in particular for its great beauty and originality: the monumental installation Re-enchanting the World by Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, in the Polish Pavilion.
Małgorzata Mirga-Tas was born in the Roma community of Zakopane in the northern part of the Tatra Mountains in 1978. In 2004 she graduated in sculpture from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and now resides in Czarna Góra, where she runs a cultural centre for children together with some colleagues and is active in the fight against racial discrimination, xenophobia and social exclusion: values that are reflected in her artistic production, where her Roma roots, the places where they live and their customs and traditions are highlighted. The intention, declared by the artist, is to give visibility and dignity to a migrant population habitually received with suspicion over the centuries, resulting in mass exile, religious persecution and killings.
The title of the project, Re-enchanting the World, is inspired by Silvia Federici’s 2018 book ‘Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’, in which the author proposes re-enchanting the world by freeing it from its evil spell, rebuilding relationships with others, including animals, plants, water and mountains.
The large textile installation was selected by the jury of an open competition organised by the commissioner of the Polish Pavilion, for the charm and originality of its visual form “which proposes a new narrative of the constant migration and mutual influences between Romani, Polish and European cultures”.
In fact, the large rectangular space of the Polish Pavilion has been entirely covered by the artist, from the floor to the ceiling, with a sort of “textile fresco” whose structure in three-part bands reproduces the layout of the astrological calendar frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, reinterpreting in a Romani key its symbolism, zodiac signs, the system of decans, allegories of the months, cyclicity and transmigration of images across time and continents.
The walls are punctuated by twelve large-format panels covered with meticulous and rich textile narratives, articulated in three horizontal bands: with a double reading, linear and vertical.
In linear, the upper band depicts the migrations of the Roma people, in the middle band the symbols of the zodiac, and in the lower band, human-sized scenes of everyday life.
The activities corresponding to the twelve months of the year are distributed in vertical.
Above the entrance to the Polish Pavilion is a depiction of the Wheel of Fortune from the Colleoni-Baglioni tarot deck, cards that arrived in Europe in the 15th century together with the arrival of the first Roma, which at the ducal court of Ferrara were also used for predicting the future; the card symbolises cyclicity, mutability, transgression, it is both a beginning and an end.
The upper band is inspired by French engraver Jacques Callot’s 1620 graphic work, The Gypsies/Life of the Egyptians, in which the Romanians were described as armed and dangerous vagabonds, but the artist reverses the meaning and proposes a positive and mythological vision of their migrations across time and continents – India, Persia, Asia Minor, ancient Greece, Egypt – until their arrival in Europe and then in Italy in the 17th century. The style of this band, which was created prior to the realisation of the large installation, differs somewhat from the style of the rest of the composition.
The curators of the Polish Pavilion, Wojciech Szymański and Joanna Warsza, write that “the gesture of appropriating the portraits of her ancestors from 400 years ago is also an attempt to operate on her identity, to recover her history and regain control over how the visual narrative of the Roma and their identity is created in Polish culture”.
The central band creates a gap and an accent with a continuous ribbon of indigo blue velvet on which compositions of female figures stand out, interspersed with zodiac signs and tarot symbols. The symbolism of the tarot cards, astrological signs and decans of Palazzo Schifanoia are at the centre of portraits of Roma women who played an important role in the artist’s life, transformed into allegorical guardians of destiny, goddesses and prophetesses.
The lower band, the most important one, starts from the ground and is at human scale so that the audience can face the characters: it depicts with affection, participation and great gaiety the daily life of the Czarna Góra community in which Małgorzata Mirga-Tas lives and of other neighbouring settlements. They are mainly lively, almost talking portraits of women of all ages, absorbed in their shared activities, surrounded by children and animals. There are also some male presences, but they are a minority.
The characters, real, are dressed in the fabrics of their clothes and often with applied objects: the artist writes “some fabrics I get from second-hand shops, but most are pieces of clothes worn by my sister, my cousins, my aunts or my friends. When I like something of theirs, I immediately warn them not to throw it away when it wears out, but to give it to me. People give me things because they know I will recycle them, not destroy them”.
These carefully and skilfully crafted ‘textile frescos’ are a mixture of patchworks of brightly coloured patterned fabrics, fragments of dresses, skirts, shawls, shirts, curtains, sheets, carpets, stitching, gluing, embroidery, painted parts (women’s hair and faces) and appliqués, such as “sequins, feathers, buttons, lapels, piping, pockets, fragments of skirts, shawls, shirts” or significant objects that belonged to the characters, such as the coral earrings of the artist’s mother or the rosary held by her grandmother.
A rich blend of historical ethnicity and multiculturalism, a harmonious three-part composition, an affectionate participation and emotional empathy, an engaging chromatic cheerfulness, a perfection of execution. A beautiful work.