In 1988, at the age of forty-three, Mara Oláh (1945–2020), who went by the moniker Omara, took up painting as a sort of a healing process following her mother’s death. Her imagery drew directly from her past and present experiences as a Roma woman living in Hungary. Starting in 1992, she would add captionlike inscriptions to her works to ensure there was no room for misinterpretation: She would tell her own story.
This exhibition’s title—“You envied me. So, I went on the World Wide Web and even copyrighted my name . . .”—has been excerpted from that of a painting, 2007-09, in which the artist portrays herself draped across the canvas in an odalisque pose. In this fantasy, Omara wears a maroon dress, her azure eyes offset by the carmine color adorning her lips, nails, and accessories. Tucked under one palm are papers marked with the word for “royalty.” In a smaller inset, the artist depicted how she felt she was perceived by the art scene: hunched under rugs, unruly hair covering her face. This dual self-portrait captures Omara’s careful management of her public persona on canvas. Other paintings showcase different performed identities: the Roma mother, the world-famous artist, the naive painter, the entrepreneurial owner of Mara Gallery (the first private Roma gallery in Hungary), the grande dame enjoying a life of leisure in her “luxury shack” at Szarvasgede.
Clearly, it would be reductive to read Omara’s work only through the lens of her Roma heritage, though she often confronts racism in her paintings. In My God Damn You, racist miser, this is my message to you . . ., 2009, she criticizes the Hungarian population’s indifference to a spate of murders of people from the Roma community. Oh, but I pity you. You will never know what it is like to be a good person . . ., 2014, tells the story of how two police officers presumed the artist was homeless when she dared to sit in the shade on a public square with bags full of her works.
While a new generation of Roma artists may seek a more ambiguous approach to their identity, Omara’s personal and charismatic voice marked an important milestone in the self-empowerment of the Roma artistic community.