Artwork Under Spotlight: Birth by Tamás Péli

Artwork Under Spotlight: Birth by Tamás Péli
Tamás Péli—Birth

Off-Biennale Budapest participates in the project "From Complicated Past Towards Shared Futures" with its own project RomaMoMA, which is conceived in collaboration with The European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture (ERIAC), Berlin. The project's aim is to imagine, work out, and perform what a trans-national museum of Roma contemporary art should be like. This question entails issues of great currency, such as decolonisation and the right to access one’s heritage; the current redefinition of the museum’s role in society; or the situation and (political, cultural, artistic) representation of the Roma across Europe (past and present) and their contribution to a European identity and culture. RomaMoMA is a platform that changes with each new edition, through which the representation of contemporary Roma art and social issues related to Roma can be discussed in the transnational context of postcolonialism.

In 2021, in the frame of the third edition of OFF-Biennale Budapest the first public presentation of a legendary, powerful but still, known only to a few, Tamás Péli’s work of art took place: the panneau titled Birth. Thanks to the dedicated work of many people, the painting’s story continued – it participated in Kassel as one of the highlights of documenta fifteen. The Fridericianum, the first museum building at the European continent hosted the painting till 25 September 2022.

Tamás Péli—Birth, 1983
Kassel, Fridericianum
In cooperation with the OFF-Biennale and ERIAC (European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture), in the framework of documenta fifteen. 

In 1983, Hungarian-Roma painter Tamás Péli painted a huge mythical panneau for the Tiszadob children's home, depicting the origins of the Roma and their common history with the Hungarians. In the painting, the myth of the origins of the Roma people is mixed with episodes of Gypsy-Hungarian history and the that time prominent figures of contemporary Roma cultural life, forming a swirling unity. 

The orphanage in Tiszadob was largely inhabited by children of Roma origin, children who either did not know their own families or did not experience community with them. As Roma and as orphans, they carried multiple burdens, and for most of them a sense of belonging was rarely granted. 

Tamás Péli was a leading figure in the Roma intelligentsia of the seventies and eighties, a prominent member of the Roma self-organisation movement, a cosmopolitan and respected artist who painted this work together with several of his colleagues. It is a truly collective work, not only in terms of the way it is created, but also because the subject matter, the shared history of Gypsies and Hungarians, and the many micro-narratives depicted in the picture are derived from shared traditions and experiences. 

In the context of documenta fifteen, the image not only entered the international public sphere unprecedented, but also left behind the the narrow framework of the Roma-Hungarian dichotomy for the first time. Although the basic aim of the picture is to show the unity, interdependence and belonging of the two peoples, its subject - the birth of the Roma - finds many analogies with the birth stories of other peoples. The picture tells the story of people marginalised within the nation-state, a story that has no place in the grand historical canon. Here we see the interweaving of stories, tales, narratives, songs, dozens of stories handed down through generations, the voices of many silenced lives, and the pride of contemporaries, the generation of the picture's creators, in whom the cultural consciousness of the Roma is being expressed. 

The painting remained in place until the orphanage closed. When the orphanage's romantic castle building was closed for renovation and thus change of function and the orphanage moved out, the painting was taken in four pieces and stored in a local museum - for more than ten years. The hard-to-find voices were silenced again, and the painting was forgotten.

It was brought back into the public eye in 2021, when it was exhibited at the Budapest History Museum as part of the OFF Biennale, at the suggestion of three dedicated researchers (Teri Szűcs, Eszter György, Anna Szász). From there, it was on its way to Kassel to be given a new space alongside hundreds of previously marginalised voices in the context of documenta fifteen, which sought to rethink the institutional system and community foundations of contemporary art. 

Documenta fifteen is on view in Kassel until 25 September 2022.