Brain Pickings

Nurturing Walls: Indian Women’s Stunning Tribal Art Tradition

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What baby birds and tattooed camels have to do with motherhood and the authenticity of public art.

For generations, the women of the Meena tribe in India’s Rajasthan state have been decorating the walls and floors of their homes with a stunning form of public art both graphic and decorative known as Mandana painting, using a white paste made of rice and milk to paint intricate motifs on these brown mud surfaces. This remarkable craft is passed down from mother to daughter, and the drawings themselves often depict maternal motifs of birds and animals with their young.

From the fine folks at Tara Books, who brought us such hand-crafted gems as The Night Life of Trees and I Like Cats, comes Nurturing Walls — a tender tribute to the Mandana tradition of public art and the women who make it. The book itself is a piece of art, printed on thick brown craft-paper that mirrors the mud walls of Meena homes and silk-screened by hand in Tara Books’ fair-trade workshop in Chennai. Each image in every book is thus an original print, and the pages themselves emit the rich earthy smell of artisanal craft.

Between the breathtaking silkscreens you’ll find vibrant full-color photographs that offer a glimpse of the lives of these extraordinary Meena artists and contextualize the Mandana artwork in its place in the local community, revealing a kind of authenticity foreign to our culture of conjoined art and commerce.

There is something very moving about the way these humble women are driven to be creative, in lived, everyday sense. It gives us much to reflect on what we take for granted as the provenance of art: for one, their painting is not the unique creation of any single individual but a tradition grown in a community. The work is not produced for a market, but for themselves, as well as the community at large. And viewed in the context of their lives, art doesn’t seem to be a luxury that has to be bought by opportunities and free time.” ~ Gita Wolf

A poetic pinnacle of tribal art, Nurturing Walls sets ajar the door to a fascinating world where beauty, community and tradition live in their purest, most inspired form.

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