Kata Oltai is the founder of FERi Gallery, an independent feminist exhibition space in Budapest, which is committed to challenging Hungary’s far-right government by broadening the conversation on gender, equality, and the female body, topics that are given conservative treatment by largely state-controlled right-wing media and educational institutions.
She opened FERi gallery in 2015 in response to the sexist rhetoric and policies promoted by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party and the prevailing cultural narrative in Hungary. “We live in a very conservative country with a right-wing government which has gradually led to a situation in which no institution can bring up the topic of feminism and gender or promote a female perspective. Not museums, not even the commercial galleries,” she says. “I felt that opening a gallery would give me the opportunity to curate shows freely and speak without compromising. I also wanted to support emerging artists by giving them a space to exhibit.”
Previously, Oltai worked as a curator at Ludwig Museum for Contemporary Art, one of the biggest art institutions in Hungary. Despite her love for her role, she decided to leave it eight years ago, feeling an increasing pressure from the government through bureaucracy and budget cuts. She funds FERi gallery herself, in part through a vintage shop, Konfekció, situated on one of the neighbouring streets. “If you spend your own money on running a gallery, no one can say a word,” she says, explaining that funding is one of the government’s main tools of controlling contemporary culture.
From the start, FERi was an independent and subversive project. Even its logo — bold red letters against a leopard print background — goes against what you would expect of typical art branding. The name is also ironic: “Feri” is a male name which, for every Hungarian, evokes an image of a middle-aged man. Oltai launched the gallery with the campaign “FERi turned feminist”, a small provocation in the eyes of those with conservative views about a woman’s role in society.
FERi is located in Budapest’s 8th district, an area which is home to a number of independent cultural initiatives, as well a number of low-income and marginalised communities under threat of being displaced by gentrification. “I chose the location near Rákóczi Square for a reason. The neighbourhood served as Budapest’s unofficial red-light district. The square was popular with sex workers,” Oltai says. “The 8th district in general has been labelled as ‘bad’; it’s associated with a high rate of violence, sex work, and crime. At the same time, it’s one of the most diverse places in the city: home to Roma, black, and Chinese communities. But it’s changing far too quickly due to gentrification.”
FERi is the only space in Budapest reserved for emerging artists with a feminist or LGBTQ+ agenda. To coincide with Queeruption Festival earlier this year, FERi organised a show of works by three artists working with local queer youth. FERi also regularly runs discussions and screenings and provides a safe space and research materials on feminism and sexuality. Generally, Oltai is adamant about the role of art and art professionals in this conservative era. For her, the only way is to be vocal and relentless.
“There is a strong feminist activist movement in Hungary, but in the art scene no one brings up these issues. Every major institution is state-funded, and they’re afraid to speak out,” she says. “But how can an intellectual be afraid and not stand up? That should be the only aim of our work — to stand up for issues and inequalities, and I’m pretty radical on that.”