Saturday, December 8, 2012

Navajo Weaving at the Palm Springs Art Museum

Navajo, Transitional Period Banded Wearing
Blanket,
circa 1890, handspun natural wool and
synthetic dyes, collection of Jan and
Mark Hilbert
Woven Together: Art and Design in Southwest Indian Textiles," presented by California's Palm Springs Art Museum, is an exemplary overview of a century of Navajo weaving. The show is abundant with examples of blankets and rungs from 1870 to 1970, elegantly installed in well-organized and warmly-painted galleries. 

Native American weaving is an art form about which I knew nothing, going in. I came out visually dazzled and enriched by the history of the art and of the complicated modern social context in which it developed.

The show's title refers to southwestern Indian textiles, but I'll refer to this as a show of Navajo work. The Navajo art is based on inherited traditions from the Pueblo people, who had been weaving with cotton since 700 AD. Spanish colonists introduced sheep to the Pueblo in the 16th century, and wool became the fiber of choice. This exhibition shows examples of late Spanish and Pueblo blankets that illustrate cultural influences. The focus, however, is on the development of Navajo weaving practice in light of its connection with Anglo commerce and aesthetics. What seems to be truly "woven together" here are the entrepreneurial desires of whites and Navajos' skillful adaptations as they worked to prosper within both the marketplace and their own traditions.
Navajo, Wearing Blanket (Possibly Zuni), Moki Style, circa
1860-1979, handspun natural wool, Saxony (red) and
raveled (red) yarnd, and indigo (blue) synthetic dyes,
collection of Jan and Mark Hilbert

The first big distinction for beginners like myself was that the Navajo were weavers of blankets, not rugs. Blankets had many purposes, all personal. Not the least of these was use as garments, which they either wrapped singly, or sewed together to be pulled over the head. The illustration below shows an installation of chief blankets. Their name doesn't indicate a particular connection to tribal chiefs, but recognition of the fineness of yarns, the clarity of colors and the bold, outstanding designs. The traditional Navajo "wearing blanket" has evenly-spaced bands across a plain field of background color. Chief blankets introduce outstanding designs like zigzags, diamonds, or chevrons.
Chief blanket installation at Woven Together, Palm
Springs Art Museum, December 2012

The world of the Navajo was devastated during the 1860s when it was determined that there were no independent Indian lands in New Mexico, and Kit Carson was instructed to beset the Navajo and undertake a scorched earth campaign that included killing all their sheep. The Long March took the Navajo in groups 350 miles to internment at Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River. They marched back in 1868 when mounting pressure on the federal government forced them to release the several tribes they had corralled there.

The effects on weaving would seem counter-intuitive, for the emergent style was more brilliant and lively than before. Because the Navajo had lost their sheep, the government supplied them with what was generically called Germantown yarn. This was wool yarn spun in the neighborhood of Germantown, Pennsylvania and dyed synthetically into many colors previously unknown in the Southwest. The Navajo weavers continued to produce banded wearing blankets, but in zigzag or dentil designs, and using unusual, new color combinations to produce "eye dazzlers."
Navajo, Early Ganado Rug, circa 1900, handspun
natural wool and synthetic dyes, gift of the
George Montgomery trust.

It wasn't until the 1890s and after that the complicated, geometric patterns that many of us associate with Navajo weaving appeared at all. The diamonds, windmills ("backwards swastikas"), crosses, diagonal stairways, and arrows were not generated by Native Americans, but by artists working for the Anglo trading posts, which became the major employers of Navajo weavers and purveyors of their products.
Navajo, Ganado or Klagetoh Rug,
circa 1920, natural handspun wool and
synthetic dyes, gift of Mrs. J. Beatty
McCullough

Two fine rooms in this show highlight the world of artisans connected the Hubbell Trading Post and one called Two Grey Hills. Hubbell was built at Ganado, New Mexico by a magnate of stage and freight lines, who owned fourteen posts on Navajo territory. He made a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad to stock Ganado rugs at their tourist sites.

The rugs Ganado weavers produced followed the leads of   Hubbell's commissioned Anglo painters. Ganado rugs can be identified by the characteristic designs the weavers copied from painted designs that were hung in the workshops for them to emulate and imitate.


Navajo, Two Grey Hills Rug, circa 1940,
hanspun natural wool and synthetic
over-dye (black), gift of Mrs. J. Beatty
McCullouth
Two Grey Hill rugs have their own pallet and motifs. These are at first glance similar to oriental rugs—and this is no accident. Rugs were popular as floor and wall decoration during the Arts and Crafts period that spanned the turn of the century. Navajo rugs were highly desirable, to serve the same purpose as orientals. One notices on all trading post rugs, too, that the geometric, abstract designs are contained by borders. These were mandated by the Anglo designers, in imitation of oriental rugs. Borders were never present in Navajo blankets, which were woven from selvage to selvage in uninterrupted bands.

Isabel John (1933-2004), Navajo Pictorial Weaving,  circa 1975, handspun natural and commercial wool,
vegetal and syntheti dyes, gift of Joyce F. Klein

During the 20th century, independent Navajo weavers began to produce pictorial weavings. In Isabel John's 1975, "Navajo Pictorial Weaving," above, the artist blended handspun wools with commercial; vegetal with synthetic dyes to create a tableau intended for explaining  aspects of tribal culture to children. A charming scene of village life is also a didactic panel.
Blossom Nez Yeh, active 1920s, Navajo Windway Sandpainting Textile, Wind People Dressed (Clothed) in Snakes, 1920-'23,
handspun natural wool and synthetic dyes, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Lazar, A6-2004.

Yet "Navajo Windway Sandpainting Textile," by Blossom Nez Yeh, represents a sacred ceremony and is considered by some controversial for its content. This immense rug is the showstopper of the exhibition. Its size, quality, and dignity mesmerize. The notes tell us that it represents figures draped with snakes, as in a healing ceremony. In the ceremony, these figures would be painted in sand and then swept away afterwards: It's considered sacrilege to render them permanent. Yet here are the Wind People for any and all to see, in a rug commissioned by a tourist trading post that has become part of the Petrified National Forest in Arizona.

The story told by Woven Together is a moving one: Any reminder of the mistreatment of native peoples is a grave collective shame; the reminders of their resilience and creativity are inspiring.

The Navajo blankets and rugs by themselves are all "eye dazzlers" of color, design, and workmanship. I understand that this show, organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum from its own collection, will not travel. It's a pity.

But the excellent catalogue costs only ten dollars. It's beautifully printed, richly illustrated, with excellent text by Christine Giles, curator, and Katherine Hough, Chief Curator. It's well worth having.
Navajo, Germantown Pictorial Blanket (detail of cowboy, steer and bow and arrows),
circa 1880, handspun natural and Germantown commercial wool and synthetic dyes,
gift of Isabel White Chase from the Cornelia B. White Estate.

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