The story of the Maithil women is fascinating, one that demonstrates the true power of art to transform and foster cross-cultural understanding. It also speaks to colonial influences that affect communities for a lifetime, including their personal, religious artwork. The Mithila region in Northeast India was rocked by a 1934 earthquake, which revealed incredible interior murals in the cracked and crumbled structures. The women were later encouraged to paint on paper so their work could be collected and sold by the British, who came to rebuild.
Made with fingers, brushes, matchsticks and ink derived from natural pigments, their murals were intended to protect their domestic spaces and celebrate holidays and life events. Much like the women of Gee’s Bend Alabama, whose quilts mirrored the colorblocked minimalism of contemporary art at the time, the Maithil women achieved critical success and accolades without seeking it, and their styles could be compared to the contemporary art of their time, further evidence of how the line between folk and fine art is a construct of the elite. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has acquired several and joyfully shows 30 of these large-scale works for the first time, and is presenting them in Painting Is My Everything: Art from India's Mithila Region, on view through December 30, 2018. The endearing features of some of these paintings, many made in the 1980s, exude universal emotion and expression and the message that human-made objects can, indeed, carry positive vibrations. The best art strikes a timeless, universal nerve for generations, and these female artists tell stories in their work. —Kristin Farr