The Navajos' Wearable Art

The arts of the Navajo nation take many forms, and contemporary artists work in a variety of mediums. But one of their most magnificent traditions, the art of weaving, has been given a special traveling exhibition by the National Museum of the American Indian: "Woven by the Grandmothers" explores the textiles made in the 19th century for intertribal trade.

The show's curators chose the finest Navajo textiles from the collection made between 1840 and 1880, says project director Andrea Hanley. To ensure that viewers see the blankets the way they were worn, they are draped on mannequins. Other tribes prized the intricate blankets for their beauty and the fact that they were so tightly woven they were waterproof.

Co-curated by three Navajo weavers, the show includes some of the finest examples of "chief blankets," traditional women's dresses, and serapes from the period. "Navajo textiles are not merely objects in an art museum," says co-curator Wesley Thomas. "They are part of the subjective realm: They cannot be removed from daily life."

Weaving is integral to Navajo religion and life, and the whole family is involved: Men and children contribute, too. "You don't literally have to sit at the loom," says co-curator B.Y. Begay. "We don't separate spinning, dyeing, weaving, caring for the sheep, stoking the fire - it is all part of it."

Some of the textiles were made just after the tragic Long Walk in 1863, when thousands of Navajos were uprooted and marched 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo reservation near Fort Sumner in east-central New Mexico.

"With few tools, these women produced such beautiful work," says Ms. Hanley, who is Navajo. "These textiles are important to Navajo people because that is how our tradition is stored.... You see the vitality of the culture within these rugs." Navajo elders who saw the show when it was in Window Rock, Ariz., were sometimes moved to tears.

"The elders would come and talk about the designs and their certain meanings," Hanley says. "One rug was a 'monster slayer' rug, which is an aspect of the Navajo religion. Even the colors mean something."

A brief introduction to the show's catalog by the curators sums it up: "We weave as did our great, great-grandmothers and perhaps as did our great, great-grandfathers ... it is the way of survival. Our stories represent our ideas, our feelings, and our respect for our people."

"Woven by the Grandmothers" is on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 11. It will travel to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

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