By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
The Montclair Art Museum’s newest exhibition features 70 vivid works — some dating back to the 1800s — showcasing experimentation in Navajo weaving and highlighting the culture’s resilience.
“Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” includes work from 1860 through 1930, as well as from contemporary artists. The historical textiles, the museum says, are rooted in the time period between 1863 and 1868, when the United States government forcibly placed 10,000 Diné — another name for the Navajo people, in their own language — at Bosque Redondo, an internment camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The exhibit uses the terms Diné and Navajo interchangeably.
During that time, Diné weavers were influenced by Hispanic textiles. They incorporated aniline dyes, and wool yarns mass produced in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, according to the museum. The exhibition takes audiences through time and demonstrates how weavers influenced one another with their designs.
“This exhibition and the historic weavings are from a particular period where the Diné weavers were rebuilding and recovering from great historical trauma and real social crisis,” Laura J. Allen, MMA’s curator of Native American Art, said. She coordinated the exhibition, first organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, for the MAM. “And so, the weavings are so expressive, so colorful, so experimental because of that history. They were weaving to heal and weaving to express themselves. So, that’s the real narrative of the exhibition.”
“Color Riot” also includes works from nine highly regarded contemporary Diné weavers, including D.Y. Begay and Marilou Schultz, and new artists Melissa Cody and Venancio Francis Aragon. It “really highlights how their work draws inspiration from the past and pushes the medium forward in exciting new directions,” Allen said.
In organizing the exhibition for Montclair, Allen wanted to start with the contemporary textiles, a change from prior shows, which have ended with them. The exhibition is not laid out on a timeline, Allen said, but rather by style.
“There are a few weavings in the exhibition that are from before the internment camp. They reflect some older motif, they don’t use synthetic dye colors,” Allen said. “Another part of the exhibition does highlight those Hispanic textiles that made a great influence on them.”
She worked with Larissa Nez — a Diné scholar and fellow with ArtTable, which focuses on the advancement of leadership within the visual arts — in organizing the exhibition for Montclair.
As visitors walk through the exhibition, they’ll encounter a special room at the center — designed by Allen and Nez as a space to reflect, with music playing by Connor Chee, a Diné pianist and composer known for combining his classical piano training with his Native American heritage.
It’s “a space to kind of stop and breathe and pay attention to these additional Diné voices,” Allen said.
In December, Allen said, artist Eric-Paul Riege will give a public program take part in a durational performance — an act that takes a long time, as a form of of artistic expression.
“He is a vibrant performance artist and he is Diné himself, but takes these ideas, philosophies and material practices to a totally interesting new direction,” Allen said.
The last part of the exhibition, one of the largest spaces in the exhibition, is dedicated to the largest textiles the exhibition has.
“That’s really where I wanted to showcase the power of these weavings as far up the walls as we could go,” Allen said. “I really tried to put the largest weavings on that section. So, when you finish your journey, you end up walking into this room. The visual power is undeniable.”
She said “Color Riot” strengthens MAM’s Native American collection, created as the museum has worked to preserve and showcase Native American and American artwork over the course of more than a century.
“As a curator, my big project here is to facilitate the renovation of our new gallery with works from across Native America. And we’ll definitely be taking cues from what we’ve done here in terms of how we’ll present next,” Allen said. “We’ll totally re-envision how Native art has been presented here.”
Allen wants visitors to not only learn about the Navajo culture, but also leave with a powerful sense of the artistic sophistication of Navajo textile weavers.
“And [I’d like them to] understand the cultural continuity over time that these design ideas, that to our eyes might seem surprising as having taken place in the late 1800s, are still so relevant today — and that Diné culture and Diné resilience is threaded throughout the exhibition,” she said.
“Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” is on display at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 2.