by Nadria Tucker
Strips of red and black fabric sewn into chevron patterns. A face, molded and painted blue, lips pressed to a tiny blue flute. One crafted in a little town tucked into a riverbend in the center of Alabama, the other crafted in a small Indian village, both created by women who wanted only to nurture their families but ended up doing much more.
An exhibit called “Handwork” runs at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery through Sept. 30. The show’s subtitle, “South Asian Folk Art Now,” belies what is truly on display. Yes, there are pieces created by self-taught artists, but walk into the dimly lit gallery, be surrounded by delicate, hand-sculpted mixed-media pieces and large-scale, intricately sewn quilts, and you’ll find that it’s the “now” that resonates.
When I hear the words “folk art,” I can’t help but imagine a plywood sign in the shape of a pig’s butt painted with the words, “Y’all come back now!” Certainly such items are made by self-taught artists, but are they really art? What is folk art?
To some extent, it depends on whom you ask. To Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, folk art comes out of a longstanding tradition of creating beautiful, useful objects within a community setting. The Gee’s Bend Quilters and the Freedom Quilting Bee (FQB), two groups based in rural Alabama, fit this definition. Both groups formed so that women who faced economic and social hardship—FQB started in the 1960s, the Gee’s Bend group was organized in 2003—could take control of their livelihoods.
“These women could have had a blanket faster, cheaper, but they choose to do the making, which means they’re truly artists,” Andrews argues. The quilts didn’t just keep the women’s families warm anymore; now, they helped feed and clothe those families, too.
So what of the Indian artist, Sonabai, who creates sculptures—objects that have no practical use? One of the info-plaques next to her pieces relates the following story: For the 1st decade-and-a-half of her marriage, Sonabai lived in forced isolation. Her husband forbade her to see or be seen by anyone in their remote village. Unable to leave her home, Sonabai crafted toys for her son made from clay, bamboo and string, dyed with mineral and vegetable dyes of her own creation. More tellingly, she decorated the interior walls of her home with sculptures of animals, people and plants. Trapped in isolation, unable to experience the outside world, Sonabai created a world, a community, of her own on the walls of her prison. If that’s not “useful,” what is?
Besides, contemporary folk art isn’t just about making objects that are useful in a traditional sense. If that were the case, every hand-painted pig butt pointing the way to the toilet could be considered contemporary folk art. What sets contemporary folk art apart is that it deals with the same issues that trained artists tackle in their work—issues of class, race, gender and, in the case of the Mahila Harit Kala sujuni-makers, sexually transmitted disease.
A sujuni is a traditional quilt or shawl, but the Mahila Harit Kala, a women’s arts and handicrafts co-op based in the Indian village of Bhusura, has turned the bed coverings into social statements. Not only do the women who create these quilts depict scenes of village life, cooking and gathering mangoes, but they also use the quilts to address issues that negatively impact the lives of village women, according to UAB art professor Cathleen Cummings, who curated the South Asian exhibit, which features pieces created by the co-op.
“Nirmala-ji [the coop leader] showed me an embroidery piece that was created to mark World AIDS Day,” Cummings says. “On triangular white cloth, shaped to function as a wall or door hanging, is stitched a story that begins with women and girls weeping. Nirmala-ji explains that husbands in the village would bring home HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, which were then passed onto their wives. In the embroidery, however, we see the village wives handing out condoms to their husbands and the husbands taking the condoms with them to their lovers. The whole scene is ringed with further representations of condoms, a kind of modern reinterpretation of a floral border. Nirmala-ji states quite frankly that efforts to spread condom usage among village men has done much to protect village women.”
Rural Alabama’s quilt-makers and India’s sculptors and artisans have taken control of their economic and physical well-being, and the social consequences have been dramatic. As Andrews acknowledges, those consequences are both positive and negative.
“It cuts both ways,” she says of the Alabama quilters and their husbands. “I think it was hard on the men who felt that the women were the breadwinners. They had work and the men didn’t. When the women started using polyester batting instead of cotton, one man said, ‘Now you’re even taking the cotton away from us.’”
To come from a population—rural, black and poor—that is sidelined again and again by society and to gain as much fame as the Gee’s Bend Quilters and other folk artists have can be overwhelming.
“The death knell—the quilts got commodified,” says Andrews. “The work went out to a greater number of people.” In fact, in the ‘70s, Sears sold pillow shams made by the Gee’s Bend Quilters. “So, they had to be able to say, ‘Yes, it’ll be available in this size, this pattern.’ It became restricted and regimented. It stifled creativity, and many of the women didn’t want to work there anymore,” Andrews says.
The perils of commodification aside, women from these two distinctly different, and yet strikingly similar, cultures have reaped some economic reward from their art. That is certainly true of the artists of “Handwork.” After years of forced isolation, Sonabai and her art have earned worldwide recognition. And the women of the Mahila Harit Kala co-op can now afford to pay for their daughters to attend school.
“In the past, few village girls beyond the age of 11 or 12 attended school, since few families could pay for the education of both their boys and girls,” Cummings says. “Now, however, their mothers’ income enables girls to complete high school. Further, girls and women in Bhusura and surrounding villages are able to marry at a later age. Today, the average age of marriage for a village girl is between 17 and 19 rather than the average age of 12 to 14 years that had been typical.”
In rural Alabama, quilts originally sewn out of strict necessity grew into vehicles of self-expression and then into works of art capable of supporting entire families. A group of Indian women in need of economic freedom found a forum to communicate a dire social need. Tiny figures crafted to entertain a child in lieu of forbidden store-bought toys evolved into intricate sculptures that eventually became a door into the outside world. This is real folk art. No pig butts allowed.
“Handwork: South Asian Folk Art Now” runs from Sept. 1-30 at the UAB Visual Arts Gallery, 900 13th St South, Ground Floor.
Historian, cultural anthropologist and author Dr. Stephen Huyler will discuss Sonabai’s art during a lecture held Thursday, Sept. 15, at 6 p.m. at the Hulsey Recital Hall.
Gail Andrews, Stephen Huyler, and artist, collector and curator Kathryn Myers will discuss the economic and social impact of folk art in South Asia and the American South during a public conversation in the UAB Visual Arts Gallery on Friday, Sept. 16, at 12:30 p.m.