A textile exhibit brings a remote corner of India to Oakland
on September 9, 2011
At a yarn store at the corner of San Pablo and Alcatraz in North Oakland, a new exhibit will transport visitors to a remote corner of India. The shop, called A Verb for Keeping Warm, is kicking off its third art show today, titled “The Rabari People, Their Culture, and Their Textiles.”
A Verb for Keeping Warm opened in this location November 5, 2010, but existed before that in Berkeley and online. The store, which specializes in naturally dyed fiber and yarn, offers classes including knitting, weaving, and sewing, and also houses a small gallery space, now home to the “Rabari” exhibit. Large squares of stunning fabric hang from the walls, adorned with complex mix of colorful shapes (black, orange, blue and yellow are popular) and thread. You can take them in, but not home—the Rabari’s work is not for sale.
If you haven’t heard of the Rabari, you’re in good company, according to store owner and show curator Kristine Vejar, whose research is the basis for the exhibit. While studying art history at Mills College in the late 1990s, she studied abroad in India to build on her love of quilting, sewing, and all things textile.
“In India, all the processes that go on behind closed doors here, like in factories—that’s all out in the open. There’s a missing wall, and so you can see in,” says Vejar, who learned to knit and sew from her grandmother as a young child in Minnesota. “Whether it’s making tires or fabric or whatever—you can see it all. One of my favorite books growing up was Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?, so I loved India.”
Her passion for seeing fine textiles crafted eventually led Vejar to India’s farthest western states. She found herself in the Great Raan of Kaatch, a desert region in the state of Gujarat, somewhere between Pakistani border, Rajasthan and Bombay (see the map). There she encountered the Rabari, a community of people untouched by the British colonization of India, and mostly unacquainted with the rest of their countrymen. “It’s very isolated from other parts of India, and has maintained a different culture,” says Vejar. “There’s no evidence of colonialism. It’s beautiful—it’s the way India was a long, long time ago.”
The Rabari are a Hindu, traditionally nomadic people, divided up into three sub-groups: the Dhebaria, the Vaghadia, and the Kaachi. Herders by trade, the Rabari always had plentiful amounts of wool, and weaving and dying became a part of their tradition—beautiful, vibrant textiles, quilts and bags have become a hallmark of the society.
When Vejar saw what the region she had to offer, she applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to study it further, and received the funding in 2001. Her goal was to focus on appliqué (the art of sewing small designs on larger pieces of cloth) as opposed to embroidery (patterns made with the thread itself). “Like the Amish, the Rabari have a really distinct design canon—certain colors they are allowed to use, for example,” Vejar says. “They are very opinionated on what looks right and what looks wrong. I wanted to look at how a canon starts evolving.”
Vejar also wanted to explore how a non-literate society passes on traditions—motifs, it turns out, are everywhere in Rabari textile. There are mango trees, temples, and parrots. The vast majority of images are symbolic of Rabari life and culture. But as time goes on, the motifs change. These days, you might find a cupboard stitched onto a textile; vestiges of modern life are slowly creeping in. Money, and the Internet, are changing the way the Rabari live.
In fact, the Dhebaria sub-group of the Rabari experienced a major shift before Vejar began her research—the tribe elders ordered that the women of the tribe stop working on complicated embroidery all together. This change took place in the mid-90s, when future mother-in-laws noted that their sons’ brides-to-be were spending inordinate amounts of time and attention on the embroidery of their dowry pieces. “Women had a certain number of pieces in their dowry, and they were taking so long to complete them that the elders were pissed off,” says Vejar, speculating that young women hesitant to shift into married life were purposefully stalling. “But they didn’t want to complete them! They wanted to stay home with their mothers and sisters.”
This ban on embroidery has since made these exceptional pieces of handiwork valueless in the Dhebaria’s society, but to Vejar they are priceless. She’s lovingly pinned some of them to the wall of her gallery, along with work by the other Rabari sub-groups, written descriptions of the pieces, and photographs of women making them. Among the treasures are camel blankets, baby quilts, dowry bags and an ornately embroidered shirt, dotted with tiny mirrors.
This is the first time Vejar has put her research, and the textiles she collected during her time in India, on display in the United States. She’s given talks about her experience, but never been able to show it off in a gallery. The two years that Vejar spent working toward this product saw a major earthquake in India, the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, and the threat of nuclear war between Pakistan and India. To say it was challenging would be an understatement.
“Last night I was getting a little misty-eyed, because I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is the result of all my work,’” Vejar says. “I can’t even believe it. It was very hard research.”
Vejar will give a short 7:00 p.m. talk at the exhibit’s opening on Friday, Sept. 9, after which it on display at A Verb for Keeping Warm for three months. Visit AVerbForKeepingWarm.com for more details.
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