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Sonwai is the artist name of Verma Nequatewa, a Native American jeweller who worked with her uncle, the renowned jeweller Charles Loloma, before establishing herself in her own right in the late 1980s.
She was born in 1949 and grew up on the Hopi reservation in Arizona where she still lives today and which she credits with influencing much of her work. She says living there “enables me to witness the grandeur of the landscape on a daily basis and to be involved constantly in the ceremonial activities that are taking place here.”
After high school she began working for her uncle the Native American artist and jeweller Charles Loloma. She spent over twenty years, from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s, working alongside him in the studio Loloma built near his home and says of that period “I was most fortunate to be able to work with him, listen to him, and listen to his conversations with other artists of various kinds for those years of apprenticeship. His insight is a major factor in my work.”
Loloma closed his studio in 1988, three years before he passed away, and afterwards Nequatewa began creating her own designs. She chose to work under the name Sonwai in honour of her uncle because Sonwai is the feminine Hopi word for beauty whilst Loloma is the masculine word. Working with a range of colourful and beautiful gem materials such as turquoise, coral, opal and lapis lazuli, she hand cuts them into small pieces which she then fits together “like a puzzle” forming multi-coloured inlay that adorn her handmade gold and silver jewels. She says that she looks for the “inner secrets” of each stone she works with and that “sometimes the idea for a piece comes from a stone—the way it is shaped or the feeling it gives. From the stones comes the shape and structure of the inlay. My role is to allow the stones to become what they can, in the way that they need to be.”
Her work is inseparable from her Hopi heritage and is wholly inspired by her day to day life on the reservation. Whether it be the colours, forms and structures she sees around her or the meaning behind an ancient ritual she hopes that her jewellery can provide people with an insight into the Hopi culture. “Charles taught that beauty is all around us on Hopi; in the environment, in the culture, in ceremony. By combining elements from what is a part of my everyday life, the finest of ideas, with the finest of materials, I can interpret a part of Hopi for people to see and wear.”
Nequatewa is widely recognized as one of the leading Native American lapidary artists and jewellers working today. Her elegant and colourful jewellery can be found in select galleries, museums and private collections around the world.