Generations of Navajo women have sustained their families and their heritage through weaving. The Kennedy Museum of Art, in a new exhibit that draws from its Southwest Native American Collection, honors their work.
Oct. 12, 2005
By Mariel Betancourt
A Navajo weaving keeps many secrets.
By the time it hangs on a wall in a museum or a home, it has passed through multiple hands, tools and forms; it truly has lived many lives.
Yet it shows no clues as to its incarnations. Color and medium -- the thread -- are one and the same. It hides all evidence of the loom and dyes it has met. It seldom mentions the hours it took to grow into its current shape. And it keeps total silence about the most miraculous transformation of all: how the coat of a sheep -- so raw, so coarse -- now hangs beautifully, radiant in its shades of red, green and blue.
The mystery of how a weaving comes to be is the subject of the Kennedy Museum of Art's exhibit "Weaving is Life: Navajo Weavings from the Edwin L. and Ruth E. Kennedy Southwest Native American Collection." To explain the intricacies and cultural significance of weaving, the exhibit takes an innovative approach by displaying not only the work of four Navajo families but also giving voice to their stories.
Accompanied by a crew of Ohio University students, curators traveled to the Navajo Nation that straddles the state lines of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico to record the tales of weavers who have supported several generations with their work. Theirs are tales of long hours herding sheep as children, watching their mothers weave, learning through patient observation and, sometimes, selling their first pieces for mere dollars. Visitors can hear their recordings by using touch-screen monitors throughout the gallery.
Co-curator Jennifer McLerran and Kennedy Museum of Art Director Paul Legris say they wanted visitors and students to recognize weaving is an art that is vibrant and alive.
"We felt it was important that viewers hear directly from the weavers what their work means to them, why it's important, why it's of value," McLerran says. "While the weavings are incredibly beautiful objects in and of themselves and can be enjoyed and appreciated purely on that level, they're also part of a wider web of meaning and significance."
The exhibit also allows weaving tools to "speak" for themselves. An impressive education gallery holds a loom as well as photos, videos and diagrams reconstructing the many steps necessary to create a weaving. A sheep's wool is there for the touch, and visitors can try carding, spinning and weaving with authentic tools. The education gallery is popular with the children and teachers who tour the museum during the school year.
The unique exhibit received support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council as well as an 1804 Grant from The Ohio University Foundation. It also benefited from the work of Ohio University students. Research and construction -- which lasted more than two years -- involved the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and schools of Telecommunications, Art and Visual Communication. Students contributed to every aspect of the preparations, including research, writing and photography, and they continue to lead tours and educational activities.
All this is only the beginning, curators say. In roughly two years, the museum will pack up the Navajo weavings and unveil a new Native American exhibit. The museum is home to more than 700 textiles and a wide variety of jewelry donated by alumnus Edwin L. Kennedy, who traveled and worked throughout the Southwest, where he purchased many of the items he donated to the university upon his death in 1994. These Southwest Native American pieces await their turn in the limelight -- and a chance to tell their stories.
Weaving is (My) Life:
Weavers, volunteers and visitors reflect on weaving and the Kennedy Museum exhibit
Rosie Taylor of the Indian Wells community of the Navajo Nation
I am Kinyaa'áanii. I am born to the Tótsohníi. Honágháahnii are my grandfathers. Tséníjíkiní are my paternal grandmothers. My name is Rosie Taylor.
I was about 8 years old. I made my first weaving. My mother warped up the rug for me, and she showed me, and she told me how to do it. She made that for me, and my first weaving was all stripes. It was a small weaving. I wove, and I remember the edges were coming in sort of like an hourglass shape. I had a hard time, some difficulties with the edges, but my dad -- I remember my dad tied the edges to the side of the loom to help me straighten the edge.
When I start weaving, I think about what kind of design I want to put into my weaving ahead of time. But when I start to sit down and start weaving, it totally changes the design. It just wants to do by itself -- the weaving itself -- it wants to create its own. It's like the mind of the rug itself.
I think (weaving is) a way to bring (children) back to having their patience. When you teach them any type of culture that's done by hand or storytelling -- whatever it is -- teaching them is the most important thing. Having the patience. That is how I have been teaching my girls, teaching them to be patient at all times. No matter how hard the weaving is, they have to be patient. With the rug and also with themselves.
And, at the same time, when they're weaving, their spirit is rejuvenated, and they sit there, and they think about life in the long term. They think about that. That's how I was when I was younger. Sometimes I would get so frustrated with just little things, and I would just sit there and weave, and the weaving itself -- the rug -- it just calms everything in me.
D.Y. Begay, exhibit co-curator and Navajo weaver
The concept of the exhibit, what we wanted to do, came from looking at the collection. What came to my mind when I looked at the textiles was that some of the textiles in storage were textiles from weavers who are still alive today. What also struck me was two of the weavers, mother and daughter, are still weaving, and the grandmother is still alive. And I started thinking, "There are three generations that are still weaving today." I wanted to focus on that. That's a good project. The 90-year-old grandmother won't be alive for very long. Why not acknowledge those three generations now, while the grandmother is still alive?
For each of the families in the exhibit, and in general, a lot of the weaving traditions spring from the home and families. Navajo weavings are learned from the mothers and grandmothers in the home. That is still very important today. And in terms of the exhibition, I thought, why not focus on this? I can co-curate this exhibit and present it from a weaver's point of view.
This is what I really want people to see ... that in spite of the digital world, we still carry on our traditions. As old as the tradition is, we still observe it.
Mariel Betancourt is assistant editor of Ohio Today. This story appears in the Fall 2005 Ohio Today. Susan Green, a writer for University Communications and Marketing, contributed to this story.