By Sumeja Tulic
April 10, 2020
Sometimes an image, no bigger than a bird flying above your head, takes your thoughts away from where you are. The verbs “traversing” and “trespassing” come to mind when thinking of that journey away from the objective, physical, and material circumstances of one’s existence. The thoughts go on until a point in one’s horizon, a road to cross or a skyscraper to enter, stops it, as if to say, “Go back to where you came from.” That is precisely how I would describe seeing for the first time a painting by Omara Mara Oláh.
The painting was in an Instagram story, the size of an egg. It looked wild and unruly, yet compact. It came with an inscription: “You don’t even think – I painted it !!! I fainted !!! When??? Can you see it? Damn gypsies stealing the fifit (wifi) !!!!! But have you seen this scene gently – in Monor, my hometown! This story happened – in my own home – I dreamed about this with my neighbor!”
The painting shows thirteen people: 8 figures standing by the entrances of a building, six lying on the ground in front of the building. Three people in the painting have facial features: a woman (the mother?), a young girl (the daughter?), and a boy (the son?). All the people in the painting, faceless or not, are holding cell phones in their hands. I was also holding a cellphone in my hands, screen-grabbing the image I didn’t quite understand or didn’t want to admit that I did. The coordinates of my understanding were in front of me, as words on the screen: “damn,” “Gypsies,” “stealing.”
As someone who was a child in the early ’90s and had spent summers in the Balkans, I was warned against one kind of boogeyman: a gypsy woman! “She,” they said, “would steal (kidnap) you and disfigure you, and then, have you beg for her. Your parents will pass by you on the street and won’t recognize your features under the burns and scars she inflicted on you.” While looking at the image of the painting, I realized that this painter knows the horror stories I’ve been told about people like her.
Oláh was born in 1945, in Monor, Hungary. Her father was a musician, her mother came from a family that earned a living by repairing people’s pans. In her 1997 self-published autobiography, “Omara festőművész” (“Painter Omara”), Omara writes about a childhood marked by the constant arguing between the two families, utterly different in lifestyle and origin. Oláh dropped out of school in sixth grade and married a 19-year-old Hungarian boy. “My mother-in-law was so much against the marriage that my mother passed away without meeting her,” she writes. She and the Hungarian boy had a daughter together, Marika, who would later graduate from high school and became a formidable champion of rifle shooting competitions. For most of her life, Oláh worked as a cleaner. Due to cancer, at the age of 38, Oláh’s left eye was removed.
Oláh didn’t begin to paint until her mother’s death. She was 43. “I had horrible headaches. Then on one of those headache days I asked for paper and pencil, because I felt like drawing. My painting started then, and when I finished my picture, which depicted Sophia Loren, my headache disappeared, as if I never had one,” she says. The headache was gone, but other kinds of pain, caused by humiliation, discrimination, racism, cancer, and, most difficult of all, alienation from her daughter, remained.
“Blue was always the color of my daughter, blue was her best dress when she was a little girl, she wanted her room to be painted blue when she grew up, it was her favorite,” writes Oláh in her biography. “In 1997 I had a dream which told me I should paint the picture I was to give to my daughter on her name day in blue. I could hardly wait to lay my hands on the paint and the boards. I had ice blue and white at home. And what did I paint? Myself with my hand on my heart, bowing deeply, thanking God for creating this in my dream.”
Oláh’s bluets are tonally varied, which corresponds to the multiplicities of her pain. The paintings are complemented with inscriptions, which Oláh began introducing to her work a few years after starting to paint. The words helped people understand what pictures can’t: what you see in them isn’t imagined, but as Oláh writes on her canvases: “This story happened.”
Affirming the truthfulness of her representations and depictions isn’t the point of her writing. Not really. Her inscriptions are not expanded captions. They are not references. Their language is far more performative, evocative, and free of an explanation. I’m reluctant to compare them to notes on sheet music, but there is a similarity between the two. The inscriptions annotate the image in ways that invigorate and amalgamate its visual cues, with meanings, with more pain. Often in the dominant color of the painting, the inscriptions seem to be emerging or drowning in the tone submerging the painting. As the survivors of a shipwreck arriving onshore, these inscriptions aren’t supplications. They are not critiques, either. They constitute a stance on the world and the self within it. They are pieces of burning coal rolling on a painted surface.
Human rights groups have reported that Roma communities in Hungary suffer profound social and economic marginalization, limited access to services, and lower life expectancy. Discriminatory and xenophobic attitudes against Roma are widespread. Roma children, in particular, suffer from discrimination in education, are stigmatized and excluded. Poor living conditions and inadequate housing also reflect their marginalization.
Since the parliamentary elections in 2010, the situation has worsened when the conservative party Fidesz, headed by the current Prime Minister Victor Orban, won the majority. Alongside Fidesz, the far radical nationalist and openly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik party also entered the parliament for the first time. Their campaign pledged to address Roma, which Jobbik views as “Hungary’s biggest domestic problem.” The conjoining of these political parties has given rise to xenophobic, radical, and paramilitary groups targeting Roma, Jews, and migrants and refugees.
In the town of Gyöngyöspata in 2011, the local Roma community was subjected to weeks of abuse and intimidation by armed vigilante gangs. One of the harrowing examples of hate crimes is the reported case of a woman carrying her two-year-old daughter in her arms who was threatened with an ax by an extremist. Although the perpetrator of the attack was a well-known far-right activist, who boasted online about his anti-Roma activities, the police refused to investigate the attacks as a hate crime and terminated the investigation shortly afterward. This case is far from being an isolated instance of police neglect.
Before I found all the online articles, catalog essays, and excerpts of the biography, I was looking at Oláh’s Instagram. To say it’s avant-garde would be an exaggeration; to say it’s different would imply a comparison and a standard. So, instead, I’ll just say that it is a beautiful feed of square photographs of a woman passed her youth but not her life. We see her being seductive and fun, with a black cropped hair, gesturing a hug or blowing a kiss.
I found Oláh on Instagram, and on Facebook, I discovered that she died on March 24, 2020. “It is with immense sadness that I write to let you know of the death of the shining, loving, and true OMARA Oláh Mara,” reads a post from the Everybody Needs Art page. “The loss to her family, her friends, and the whole world.”
Less than a week after Oláh died, the Hungarian parliament passed a bill that prolongs the state of emergency declared in light of the coronavirus pandemic and gives Orbán the authority to rule by decree for an indefinite period. With the suspension of checks and balances in Hungary and its dire and potentially horrifying outcome, I go back to images of Olah’s paintings and inscriptions. May these pieces of burning coal roll on our conscious, forever.
Sumeja Tulic is Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer currently based in New York City.