Self-taught artist Sonabai Rajawar lived in enforced isolation for 15 years in a remote village in central India, creating her own joyous sculptural environment. Through the necessity of expressing her own vision in the face of tremendous adversity, Sonabai developed her innovative art form, which she later taught to other artists. Today in the remote rural villages of her central Indian state, many other artists practice Sonabai’s art in painted clay.
Guest Curator Stephen Huyler has chosen for the exhibition 33 sculptures by Sonabai and her family as well as 38 works by four artists trained by Sonabai. To re-create Sonabai’s environment for the visitor, the innovative installation includes an introductory video, short videos of the artist at work and village scenes, projections of village dancers and photomurals of Sonabai’s studio — all produced by Dr. Huyler. One of the highlights of the exhibition will be a visit from Daroga Ram and Rajen Bai Rajawar, Sonabai’s son and daughter-in-law, to demonstrate Sonabai’s legacy of clay sculpture making.
In India, where encrusted traditions overlay one another in a complexity that defies full comprehension, very few examples of self-taught artists have been discovered. Sonabai Rajawar is one of the few. Possessing fine faculties of mind, body and spirit, her only disability, if indeed that word is appropriate, was her virtual imprisonment during 15 years of her marriage. For a decade and a half, Sonabai was unable to see or be seen by anyone other than her husband and child. Removed from almost everything she had known growing up and with no instruction or guidance, Sonabai generated from within her own memory and imagination a vision of life and community with which she began to repopulate her lonely walls. She created an entirely new artistic expression, one completely different from anything seen before in India before: a world of color, light, and whimsy.
Years later, quite by chance, Sonabai’s creativity was discovered by the Indian art world. She was given India’s highest honor: the prestigious President’s Award. Although Sonabai was always shy and withdrawn, at the urging of her government she exhibited her art at museums and crafts fairs throughout India, in Brisbane, Australia and even here at Mingei International in 1986. She was given stipends to teach her unusual sculpting style to other artists in her central Indian district resulting in an innovative art form that has affected the incomes and lives of many. Several of her students have been invited far afield for exhibitions of their own.
Although Sonabai’s artistic vision was singular, her message is global. Sonabai’s story clearly expresses the capacity of human beings everywhere to meet their challenges head on and to draw from deep within their inner resources the strength and insight to change their lives. Sonabai was not daunted by her oppression: she found ways to transform it into expressions of courage, beauty and joy in living.
The book that accompanies the exhibition, Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing, is the result of years of research by Stephen Huyler, acknowledged cultural anthropologist, author and photographer. Through stories, insightful documentation and evocative images, Huyler conveys Sonabai’s life and that of her family and community, the remarkable productivity that resulted from her isolation and seven of the other artists whose work she has influenced. A DVD is included with the book, which will be available in The Collectors’ Gallery / Museum Store.
“The art of Sonabai Rajawar is unique: it has no precedent.”
Stephen Huyler, Guest Curator