These Paintings Are My Everything: Highlighting Women of Color & Female Empowerment at the Asian Art Museum

Musings, Spotlight, Style

asian art museum san francisco mithila painting feminismThe Asian Art Museum is devoted to connecting art to life.  And with their latest exhibit, Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Regionart and life collide to highlight the strength, power, vulnerability, and resilience of Mithila artists — who, of course, happen to be…MOSTLY WOMEN!  As an exhibit that features women of color, I was ecstatic to partner with the Asian Art Museum to further accentuate the brilliant work and lives of these amazing artists.

3110-2018-0228431696152443144227This domestic art tradition, that has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations, was confined to the interior walls of the most intimate rooms in Mithila.  Word of these intricate murals spread beyond the region and during a severe drought in 1966, Pupul Jayakar, a director of the All India Handicrafts Board, saw an opportunity.    She arranged for women to learn how to paint on paper, enabling those women to sell their own work and gain economic independence — something many women from this region had never experienced.  Jayakar’s plan not only empowered village women, but ultimately sparked the economic resurgence of the region.  Moreover, the newfound artistic and financial success of these artists inherently breaks the boundaries of gender and caste norms.

On the other side of the world, we’ve seen a surge of female empowerment apparel in fast fashion.  Consumers can now physically show their support for gender equality every day while feeling cute and fashionable.💁🏻‍♀️  To emphasize the powerful and unique stories of these female Mithila artists and the subjects of their paintings, I’ve styled female empowerment pieces that coordinate with the exhibit’s colorful and feministically charged paintings.  From almighty deities, to the emotional life stories of the artists, Painting Is My Everything, showcases a myriad of female stories and perspectives that celebrate the resilience and strength of women.

Asian Art Museum Mithila painting feminism Target Vital Voices

Hindi deity Kali, is a fierce mother goddess and represents the force that controls time and divine wisdom that ends all illusion. She is the personification of creative and destructive powers of time and could be interpreted as a representation of women’s assertiveness and power.

One company that recently created feminist apparel in collaboration with Vital Voices is Target.  And in line with the collection’s raison d’etre, Vital Voices “supports fearless women leaders around the world to amplify their voices and increase their impact in their pursuit of economic empowerment, public and political leadership, and the protection of all human rights.”  Each design was created to celebrate the passion, strength, and undeniable power of women.

Asian Art Museum Mithila Painting Target Vital Voices

Artist Mahasundari Devi depicts children painting on sheets of paper instead of on walls, suggesting the shift to personable salable art.

Aside from the power of economic independence, Mithila artists also found power in using painting as a means for personal storytelling and reflection. The artist’s personal perspectives and life experiences often serve as the subjects for their work, which allows their stories to be heard and validated. Through painting, their voices became important narratives rather than being easily dismissed.
Asian Art Museum Mithila Painting Shanilee Kumari Target Vital Voices

Shalinee Kumari pays tribute to the “great goddess” Devi and celebrates women through her use of composition and symbolism.  Here, Devi is shown holding various objects, which are usually associated with other deities. Wielding these various objects conveys Devi’s immense and numerous powers and is position as a mighty goddess that embodies the power of women.

One artist whose paintings are greatly influenced by personal perspective is Shalinee Kumari.  Originally studying geography, Kumari decided to start painting after discovering colorful Madhubani paintings. When she headed to women’s college, she heard about the Mithila Art Institute and applied to be admitted into the program. She is now one of the young female artists who is pushing the boundaries of Mithila painting by using the centuries-old style for personal self-expression.  Her work often focuses on global, personal, and community topics such as climate change, terrorism, and gender equality.

In Daughters are for Others, Kumari comments on social roles of Indian women as daughters, wives, and daughters-in-law. The painting’s title evokes the perspective of the girl’s parents and hints at the emotions of loss and resignation. The tight arrangement of the yellow and orange footprints, which reference the Hindu marriage rite of circumambulation of the sacred fire, feels like an impenetrable wall and creates a domestic space. Confined inside the space are two women whose conjoined form recall images of powerful goddesses. Though the true meaning may not be entirely known, Kumari cleverly combines decorative qualities and serious content to create a tension that makes this painting impactful.

Asian Art Museum Mithila Painting

Devi makes use of a style that was traditionally employed only by members of her caste. It is distinctive for its linear bands filled with dots and for its paper that is coated with an auspicious cow dung wash that recalls a mud wall.

One of the most educated and continually innovative artists among the lower-caste Dusadh community (aka “untouchables”), is Shanti Devi.  Many of her works depict everyday subjects, but she beautifully injects them with new meaning.  In Pregnant Cow, Devi surrounds the cow with blooming flowers, sprouting buds, and multiple bees to convey nature’s bounty and fertility.  In her intention to depict a common subject, Devi has instead instilled powerful meaning into it.

Asian Art Museum Mithila Painting Phenomenal Woman Target Vital Voices

In 1976, Devi traveled to Washington DC to participate in the Smithsonian’s annual Festival of American Folklife.  She subsequently created several paintings that document her experiences through personalizing and transforming iconic monuments such as the Capitol Building, Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, and Arlington National Cemetery.

Sita Devi is perhaps one of the most phenomenal women amongst Mithila artists.  She was one of the earliest village artists to paint on paper and her work immediately attracted attention in the 60s. Her paintings received government and private commissions, won national awards, and warranted solo exhibitions.  All of which brought wide-spread attention to Mithila paintings and paved the way for other Mithila artists.  Over the course of her life, she worked tirelessly to develop and uplift her village and community through education and economic empowerment.  She paved the way for many, if not all, the amazing artists featured in this exhibit.

Asian Art Museum Mithila painting female empowerment

Reflective of Bihar’s electoral landscape, female supporters are shown at the bottom of the painting.  In recent elections, women have turned out the vote and are thereby influencing policy changes in the state.  In this painting, Devi shows the powerful influence of the female vote in India.

Dulari Devi is another artist that lived in extreme poverty until she became an accomplished painter.  She worked menial jobs, but her unhappiness with her life began to change when she started to visualize everyday occurrences as paintings.  And with a with a stroke of good fortune, Devi began working in the house of a Mithila artist who would host artist trainings.  Fascinated by the paintings, Devi eventually asked if she too could be trained to paint and thus was the beginning of her new life.  And when strong women unite, the possibilities are extraordinary and endless.

Asian Art Museum Mithila Painting

Baccha Dai Devi’s The Hindi deity Shiva in half-male, half female form, Ardhanarishvara is the combined form of Shiva and Parvati. The right half shows Shiva in his male form and the left represents the female aspect, Parvati.  Ardhanarishvara represents the combination of masculine and female energies of the universe and the unity of opposites. And despite being opposites, the two are inseparable.

The sheer desire to create saleable paintings in and of itself is a powerful act of independence for many of these Mithila artists.  Many were living in extreme poverty and had little to no control over their own lives, so wanting to produce art is a defiant act against strong gender and caste norms.  And whether Mithila artists are painting otherwordly deities or day-to-day life, painting has given them opportunity, choice, freedome; painting has given them everything.  And I felt so honored to help tell their stories and be inspired by their pieces.  It was everything. 😉

Painting Is My Everything will be on display at the Asian Art Museum through December 30, 2018.  For more information about the exhibit and upcoming exhibit events, visit AsianArt.org.

Asian Art Museum Shanilee Kumari

Artist Shalinee Kumari is second from the right wearing a yellow dress standing in front her painting, “Daughters Are For Others.”

Female empowerment shirts partially provided by:
Kidd Bell & Inkcourage

Photographed by:
Colleen Lem

 

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