Romani Girl

Romani Girl

1915Oil on canvas79 × 63.5 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Konrad Mägi painted the Roma on at least three occasions in Viljandi in 1915, and a pencil sketch is also known. Back then, the Roma tended to be the subject of disparaging commentary in the press, and strong stereotypes prevailed: there were often stories about horse-rustlers and faux fortune-tellers swindling people. Under a law passed in 1915, the same year as the painting, Roma, Jews and beggars (sic) had to carry a passport on them at all times. Like “gypsy”, Estonian had its own pejorative word for this ethnicity, while, according to current Estonian Romani community chairwoman Zalina Dabla, “Roma” is used by the Romani people themselves.

Villem Ormisson also painted the same Romani girl. According to Zalina Dabla’s analysis, the girl was from the Latvian Roma, as this part of the diaspora had a darker complexion than Russian Roma. The Estonian Roma had in the middle of the 19th century largely become concentrated in Laiuse, central Estonia. The Latvian Roma were often afoot in the Viljandi area, establishing camps and gathering for fairs. One of the fairs took place in Viljandi in early February 1915. The contemporary press reported that Roma were among the traders and performers.

Mägi and Ormisson did not paint the Romani girl in a studio, but rather in the kibitka, or covered wagon, in which the girl had travelled to the fair. Other references to the fairground setting included the tambourine in the girl’s hand and her more festive attire, particularly the red tone, which indicates performance clothing. The girl’s skirt is fairly modern and does not represent an ethnographic layer; separate attention should be drawn to the shawl on her shoulders. In Romani culture, this was a signal that the girl was at least 12 and preparing for marriage. Another bit of cultural code signals that she is of eligible age: the pearls that Mägi, unlike Ormisson, has painted are much bigger than the pearls a girl would wear as a child. Unlike Ormisson’s work, we can surmise from Mägi’s painting that the girl is also wearing a greenish headscarf, another indication that, with consent from her parents, she was of marriageable age. These signals were internal to the community, as the Roma only married other Roma.

The painting includes an array of details that refer to the wealth and status of the Romani girl’s family. Ormisson, for example, has included three jugs and Mägi, only one, but Dabla says even just one jug is already a sign of material well-being. Mägi has also painted the girl’s necklace, ring and earring, but the existence of the tambourine is a clear sign of wealth as musical instruments were very expensive back then and the one she is holding seems fairly new. The patterned rug in the background also signifies status and cultural self-awareness. The rug in Ormisson’s work is on the floor, while in Mägi’s, it appears to be on the wall. This is not a product of the artists’ imagination but Romani handicraft: the size and intricate pattern of the rug made of strips of cloth mean the family is well-off (the pattern also indicates an approach used by the Latvian Roma). This affluence would be inconceivable if the family was not employed, and employment was also prestigious in Romani culture of the day. Can it be supposed that the girl was from the family of the leader of the Roma community (or tabor)? It is not certain.