Tamás Péli

As a small boy, Tamás Péli was a child prodigy. From a tender age, he fascinated the adults around him with his unusually mature artistic expression. He himself remembers his childhood thus:

"I actually never made "children's" drawings in the usual sense of the word. Once – I might have been two or three years old; I had hardly learned to walk – my parents left me alone for a while, and when they came back and saw my pictures, they were terrified. They thought that a stranger had been in our flat during their absence. When I was six, I drew like a fifteen year old, and it was quite easy for me to paint what I saw."

At just that time, a coincidence occurred which gave Tamás Péli the possibility of more professional artistic development. His cousin, who from time to time modeled for students at the Budapest School of Graphic Arts, took her young charge to a drawing class where one of the students put a piece of chalk and paper into his hand and asked him to draw something.

"He probably thought I would draw a cephalopod, (a cephalopod is a mollosk with tentacles attached to it's head, such as an octopus), but, instead, I started to draw an easel, drapery and a trash basket, in front of which stood a chair with a jacket thrown over it. Meanwhile, Professor Bencze came to the class, noticed the picture and asked who had drawn it. "That little boy", and they pointed me out. I just reached for paper and began to make another drawing."

That is how Tamás Péli earned the chance to participate in drawing classes and, the following year, he attended more or less regularly.

His extraordinary artistic gift assured him the respect and interest in primary school, not only of his teachers, who, over and over again, admiringly chronicled Péli's success at artistic competitions, but, above all, of his peers, who were enthusiastic about his caricatures and whom he willingly helped with their homework assignments from art class. At the age of eleven, his parents – unswerving admirers of his talent – gave him a set of oils and, from that time on, he also began to experiment with oil painting. At the end of the eighth grade of primary school, he simply applied to the High School of Graphic and Applied Arts. Tamás' mother, Hilda, was called to the primary school for consultation. When she entered the art department, the teachers looked at her and asked her if she was perhaps Italian. "Why should I lie?" she asked them. "I'm a Roma woman." The surprised reaction of one of the teachers was: "Well! And to think that your son is such an artist." Péli was accepted at the high school.

Tamás Péli's childhood experiences and memories, family relations and traditions played a decisive role in his life in his vision of the world. His father, who was half Hungarian, half Slovak, had a flourishing gold- and silver-processing workshop in Budapest. It was in Budapest that he met his future wife, the fourteen -year-old Hilda, whom he married shortly thereafter. Tamás was born after nine years of a happy marriage as an eagerly awaited and longed-for child. Relatives on his mother's side made up a large and loving family. At that time Hilda's brothers were already recognised musicians. One of them, Kálmán, accompanied the famous Gitta Alpár in London. Péli's father, who fit right in with this extensive Roma family without the least problem, was nicknamed "the white vajda".

At the time of Tamás' birth twenty-seven people lived in the apartment, but, as he himself reports, he never knew what poverty was. His childhood brings to mind only pleasant memories of a time of joy, pleasure and spontaneous demonstrations of affection. He had a particularly special relationship with his grandmother, Zsuzsa. He always remembered her affectionately and called her "Ancestress Káli" – Káli is the consort of the god Shiva. She is worshipped all over India, mainly in villages. She belongs among the most ancient goddesses and her name Káli (the black one) indicates that she was the goddess of the dark people who created the magnificent civilisation of Mohenjo-Daro before the Indoeuropeans invaded India (ca 1500 B.C.). Whether consciously or unconsciously, she taught him always to be conscious of his Roma origin and to be proud of his identity. [ Romanipe-The Roma Identity ] In contrast to his rather uncomprehending relatives on his father's side, his mother's relatives were never taken aback by the "unrealistic character" of Péli's pictures. On the contrary, they allegedly noticed all of the elements which Tamás meant to emphasise. Many of his pictures were directly inspired by comments and observations of the people close to him.

Tamás Péli started high school with great expectations and also a considerable amount of determination. As was confirmed very early, he differed from his fellow students particularly on two counts. Most of the others came from intellectual bohemian artistic families. They were well informed about current cultural events and new artistic trends. Tamás possessed only the general knowledge he had acquired in school. He seemed quite different and was therefore the constant object of derision and verbal abuse. On the other hand, however, he had something which the other students didn't have – at least to such an extent: a natural, relaxed style of painting and a spontaneity of expression. Even though, as he said about himself, his attitude towards life was predominantly optimistic, after three months he vowed that he would never set foot in the school again.

He spent two months wandering through Budapest's museums and going to the cinema and libraries in an attempt to make up for his inadequate knowledge. But, when his homeroom teacher came personally to find out why he had been absent for such a long time, everything came out and Tamás' future studies were seriously threatened. After her initial disappointment, his resourceful mother wisely considered all the circumstances and made an attempt to clarify the whole situation with the school director. Everything turned out well and Tamás was able to continue his studies.

The following year, he was the focal point of all the class events. In the third year, a circle of future artists was formed in the vocational school. This group called for the need to create individual styles of figurative painting which would differ from the official model. Some of the other artists in the group were Noemi Tamás, Péter Balogh, and Tamás Hibó. In the same year, Péli was able to free himself in graphics from precisely mastered but rather "romantically adolescent" motifs and gradually began to mature. His style was unique and far exceeded the level of the vocational school. His greatest inspiration came from early Renaissance paintings, and the creation of icons began to attract him. He painted portraits of "Laurency Mária" (1963), "Kati" (1963) and "Attila" (1964). The latter is obviously influenced by the great Renaissance master Piero de la Francesca. His next painting is "A vak asszony" ( "Blind Woman")(1964): on a background with Renaissance perspective, an expressive figure sharply stands out, her wide eyes staring into empty space and suggesting the vulnerability and constantly anxious vigilance of a sightless person. The greatest of his early work is the painting "Krisztus és Magdolna" ( "Christ and Magdalena") (1964), which was conceived in the shape of a T and whose format already paves the way toward the popularity of Péli's monumental paintings.

After he had finished high school, his life took many turns: he met the Dutch wife of a former Hungarian officer. She was captivated by his paintings and invited him to Holland where she introduced him to her daughter, Margareth, who would later become his wife. Both his invitation to Holland and his meeting Margareth were full of complications. When Margareth's mother discovered that her daughter and Tamás were meeting secretly, Tamás was forced to return to Budapest.

After some time, Tamás began an intensive correspondence with Margareth, who did everything in her power to arrange for Tamás to study in Holland. All of her attempts were blocked by nearly insurmountable obstacles of the Hungarian bureaucracy. According to the Hungarian laws of the time, if someone wanted to study abroad, he would first have to pass the entrance examination for university in Hungary. Péli became an undesirable person and he repeatedly failed the entrance examinations. Into this insolvable situation his mother intervened once again. She turned for help to a journalist who wrote about Roma - and Tamás became famous overnight. He was photographed, filmed and interviewed. Everybody began to take an interest in his art and – most importantly – he was permitted to leave for the Academy.

Péli attended the Amsterdam Academy from 1967 to 1974. The five years he spent in Holland brought him some basic knowledge in the field of visual arts; possibilities of new experiments and a great deal of useful experience. Péli learned to work with new materials and techniques: he used polystyrene, aluminum, glass, wood and metal. However, he thought of himself above all as a painter and continued to create monumental panel paintings. He designed frescoes and glass panes and attempted a concrete relief. His largest work of all, a composition called "The Old and New Testaments", was a glass pane measuring 72 m². He created it in his fourth year at the Academy (1972). Péli even tried sculpture: within only a half year, he created eighteen large wooden sculptures which were sold right after they were exhibited. During his stay in Holland, Péli was already creating works in which his personal contribution is more apparent than the influence of old Renaissance masters. From among these, let us name at least "Memento mori" (1969), "A Zsidó menzassyony" ( "Jewish Bride") (1970), "A hölgy majommal" ( "Woman with a monkey") (1972) and "A Cigány Krisztus" ( "Gypsy Christ") (1970).

In view of the recognition and numerous expressions of admiration he earned during his studies in Holland, it is somehow difficult to understand that, right after finishing his studies, Tamás Péli rushed back to Hungary, where he continued to paint and live the contented, carefree bohemian life. He later thought back to this era with great love as a time of an accelerated tempo of life, like a "commercial with rhythmic music".

After living in Hungary for a year, he finally married his love, Margareth Di Lagha. The newlyweds spent a happy month travelling around the big cities of Europe. After Europe came the East – Turkey, Pakistan. Their experiences in these lands changed Péli from a man with an optimistic view of life to a man anxious about the real state of the world masked with achievements of modern technology – motorbikes, colour TV, the illusions of a contented life. He gradually came to the conclusion that until now he had only muddled along without having any really firm purpose in life apart from his artistic ambition. He applied to the Dutch Union of University Students and found a new love who, shortly thereafter, died in an automobile accident. Péli had a nervous breakdown and, only after an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, did he slowly begin to return to normal life. He made new friends, divorced Margareth and went through a short period of artistic stagnation.

In 1973, Tamás Péli returned to Hungary for good. He now had a clear idea of his future life and his main mission: to inform the public about Roma culture and traditions through his art. He met with József "Choli" Daróczi and together they launched a project of instructing young Roma pupils in a Budapest primary school. They organised camps and circles for the visual arts, and they also founded a band. Choli acquainted Péli with the lives of Roma in settlements. From them Péli drew great inspiration for his own art. A wide circle of artists and intellectuals gathered around him, and his atelier was constantly buzzing with activity. At that dynamic time he created further important works, above all portraits of young girls, but also a series of Indian portraits and a famous portrait of Bishop Bartolomé De las Casas, as a young missionary.

Tamás Péli became a leading Roma intellectual, the centre of artistic society. He began to consider creating an epic work which would document Roma history and the wandering of Roma to European countries. He needed a few more years to solidify his thinking on this subject. Finally, in 1983, he realised his project: in only three months he created a composition on a surface of 42 m². The art-loving public was ecstatic because it was clear that, with this work, Péli's art had attained its absolute height.

The central figure of the whole work is ancestress Káli, who gives birth to a son. All the other motifs unfold from her and are subordinate to her; near Káli we can find nomadic divine beings on horses. The work is also rich with animal symbols. A snake, curled around the whole picture, portrays wisdom; a dove is purity and peace; as its antithesis, there enters a large, black raven-like bird, which probably symbolised destruction, devastation and death. "I would wish this painting to be a metaphor of all of the Gypsy population in Hungary", said Péli himself about this work. There is no doubt that his aspiration was realised.

We can surely count Tamás Péli among the most famous Roma artists not only in Hungary but in the entire world. His work ranks among world-class paintings.


Farkas, Endre (1994) "Osztály vigyázz!" - ki (a fene) érti ezt? (Farkas Endre beszélget Péli Tamással). In: Farkas, Endre (ed.) Gyerekcigány. Pedagógiai tanulmányok, Budapest, pp. 53-70.
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