Weavings Blend Old and New

An exhibition of Navajo textiles highlights their culture's interplay between tradition and innovation

NAVAJO weavers want their public to understand that a great deal of thought and hard work go into the making of their tapestries, whether they are traditionally styled or contemporary in design. A traveling exhibition organized by the Denver Art Museum (DAM) illustrates the wealth of ideas, the high skill, and diligence inherent in the best of this work. "Contemporary Navajo Weaving: The Gloria F. Ross Collection" offers the viewer an introduction to a traditional art form in its most current evolutionar y state.

DAM was the first art museum in the United States to collect native American art for aesthetic rather than ethnographic reasons. The museum's collection of Indian arts and artifacts is arranged beautifully - to be appreciated as art - and the quality of the works is very high.

So it was only fitting that DAM organize a contemporary Indian art show with collector Gloria Ross and anthropologist Ann Hedlund, who is also the curator. The show's 38 rugs and tapestries woven by 32 women and one man represent a wide variety of styles, techniques, and materials.

Navajo culture prizes individuality, and while the craft is handed down from mother to daughter and certain families may share design interests, style is left entirely up to the individual weaver. Some weavers still prefer to work in traditional patterns like "Ganado Red" or "Two Gray Hills" style, while others have moved into the pictorial, and still others into modern abstract design. A 350-year history

The majority of Navajo weavers are women. Most weavers represented here are mature artists, but the works of a few younger women are included along with the one man. More men have turned to textile art as cultural expectations have changed.

While many weavers live in cities and hold down other jobs, others remain on the land and create rugs as part of their traditional household responsibilities, complementing the raising of sheep, farming, and child-rearing. There is no stereotypical weaver's lifestyle. And the move in recent years, wherever the weaver works, is toward savvy marketing strategies, high quality products, and increased professionalism. Many artists now "sign" their textiles, weaving in their names, initials, or personal symbo ls, which not only increases the value of the tapestry but also raises the weaver's visibility in the art market. Rug making has always been an important part of Navajo commercial interests, first as trade goods and now as works of art.

One of the show's central themes concerns the interplay between tradition and innovation. Designs have been borrowed freely from many sources throughout the 350-year history of Navajo weaving. Pueblo and Spanish designs as well as Navajo basketry designs fed into the art form in the early days, but Navajo weavers have always reinterpreted whatever forms they adopted into their own remarkable terms. A potpourri of rugs

Variations in style and form are great, and it is a wonder that these rugs are still identifiably Navajo. That distinctive Navajo "look" greets the viewer powerfully despite a wide variety of styles, compositions, and type and quality of hand-dyed and store-bought yarns.

Sadie Curtis's commissioned interpretation of New York art star Kenneth Noland's rug design presents a series of nine rectangles in interlocked color stacks - glaringly contemporary, yet still conspicuously Navajo. On the same wall is Elsie Jim Wilson's majestic "Ganado Red" - traditional, yet distinctive. Inspired 40 years ago by a spider's web laden with dew, Rose Owens has made round rugs the mainstay of her art. Her methods are secret, her technique highly individualistic, and yet her designs are tra ditional. The Navajo way of life and art is a living tradition built on change, Dr. Hedlund says.

One of the prizes of the show is Ason Yellowhair's "Bird-and-Flower Pictorial Rug." Ms. Yellowhair weaves her bright birds and stylized flowers against a very traditional-looking neutral-gray ground. Her technique is superb, her colors engaging, and the effect of the oversized piece (131 x 94 in.) is exhilarating.

The meaning in Navajo tapestry lies more in the artistic process than in the final product - a concept oddly resonant with contemporary art. Isabel John teaches her grandchildren about Navajo customs as they watch the pictures form on her loom. In one piece, she depicts the "Ye'ii Bicheii" religious ceremony. The rug has no religious significance because rugs are not used for ceremonial purposes. But the process of making the rug tells a story that is deeply meaningful to Ms. John and her young charges.

Nor do the frequently recurring patterns in the work of other weavers have universal symbolic meaning. Hedlund says the weavers want the viewers to understand that the work takes much thought and that in the Navajo world-view, thought is very powerful; it is able to turn events. When the weavers say, therefore, that their work takes a lot of thought, they mean more than merely imagining pattern. The process of making is itself significant, the meaning behind the images individual and private.

* The exhibition will be at the DAM until Oct. 4; The Heard Museum in Phoenix from Feb. 5 to April 10, 1994; Renwick Gallery summer 1994; Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., from Sept. 17 to Nov. 6, 1994; the National Museum of the American Indian at the Customs House, New York, from March 19 to July 9, 1995.

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