Cover Stories

Where the Sky Meets the Land

Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s ‘Horizons’ mashes up contemporary and customary photos, designs and textiles at the intersection of past and present

Cover Story (Darby Raymond-Overstreet)

“Think of home not being bound or limited by border, state line, county line, on- or off-reservation,” says artist, curator and educator Rapheal Begay. “Home is beneath your feet, where you’re between Mother Earth and Father Sky. Horizon…as a curatorial approach is a pretty sound concept, especially when celebrating Diné creativity and resiliency as forms of existence.”

Omnipresent concepts of place, balance and identity form the structure of the recently opened Horizons: Weaving Between the Lines with Diné Textiles exhibit at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, for which Begay was hired as a guest co-curator alongside post-doc Hadley Jensen.

Darby Raymond-Overstreet (Diné, b. 1994), Woven Landscape, Shiprock 2018. Digital print; commissioned for Shaped by the Loom: Weaving Worlds in the American Southwest (Bard Graduate Center, New York, 2023). (Darby Raymond-Overstreet)

Across more than two-dozen weavings, photographs, digital design pieces and sartorial ephemera that represent artists old and new, Horizons not only showcases textile arts as a shared multigenerational Diné tradition, it moves the conversation from collectors and trading posts back into the original language of practical use and deeper meaning. In addition, the exhibit unfolds a shifting institutional approach, with dated curatorial ideas falling aside to make way for more collaborative and dynamic planning and execution strategies.

The show’s convergence between contemporary and customary weaving practices and photography materialized through both its pair of curators and a small group of Navajo weavers and artists who played a large role in not just what the exhibit includes, but how and why.

When Jensen first pitched the idea of Horizons to MIAC in 2021, she’d just completed her Shaped by the Loom project about Diné weaving through her Bard Graduate Center alma mater and the American Museum of Natural History. She had moved to Santa Fe and found herself wanting to kickstart a new exhibit in a similar vein.

“It was initially going to be a show that included the museum’s permanent collection and loans from the American Museum of Natural History,” Jensen tells SFR. “But the project kind of evolved, and Rapheal Begay became co-curator, so it transformed into a show about weaving and photography as different ways of knowing and seeing place.”

Tyrrell Tapaha (Diné, b. 2001) Adá Nítsíjíkees: Think for Yourself 2020. Handspun and commercial vegetal-dyed Navajo-Churro, alpaca. Tia Collection, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Addison Doty)

Horizons was accomplished through funding from the Terra Foundation for American Art and major gifts from private supporters, and focuses on Diné, or Navajo, textiles and the craft’s shared cultural tenets—from shepherding, spinning wool and making use of plant-based dyes, to photography, family bonds and generational knowledge. The objects vary tremendously despite how many can be neatly classified under the one “textiles” umbrella, but with Horizons including everything from rugs and wedge weaving to dresses, digital mashups and writing, it defies singular definition.

Further, Jensen explains, a romanticized notion of the West has long sullied the histories of Indigenous arts and artistry. Some pieces in MIAC’s collection, for example, are uncredited, their stories beginning not with the artist tending to their sheep or working the loom, but at the time of a transaction: when a piece showed up in a collection, was purchased or even pilfered. Works in Horizons by artists whose names are lost to time aren’t labeled as “unknown,” but as “artist once known.”

She says that because so little recognition outside Indigenous communities has expounded upon the creative forces behind items like rugs, clothing and tapestries, it’s easy for the wider public to dismiss the notion that textile pieces are every bit as artistically valid as other more traditionally “artsy” pieces. Jensen’s goal, she says, became to reframe how museumgoers might perceive fiber arts.

Kevin Aspaas (Diné, b. 1995) Untitled (wedge weave) 2022. Wool yarn (including wool warp), indigo dye, natural (undyed) white and grey. Courtesy of the Gochman Family Collection. (Addison Doty)

“There have been so many exhibitions on Navajo weaving,” Jensen says, “but I don’t know if people know this—MIAC has over 1,200 Navajo textiles alone. And though some have been featured in previous exhibits, we wanted to create a checklist of pieces that would be interesting or that may not be what you’d expect to see. This was really an opportunity to do something different.”

The show’s lesser-seen items are truly astonishing, from pictorial pieces and wall hangings that roll up various methods to one of Jensen’s favorites: an abstract representation of a spider completely lacking in trading post influence. Jensen and Begay’s idea of “something different” also came in the form of a relatively new concept, at least insofar as institutional arts events go: an advisory committee made up entirely of regional Diné artists working in a variety of textile and photographic mediums worked and collaborated on Horizons throughout the entire curatorial process. These advisors include Lynda Teller-Pete, Larissa Nez, Tyrrell Tapaha, Kevin Aspaas and Darby Raymond-Overstreet, most of whom have work featured in the show. Each recieved an honorarium and was provided with travel and lodging when necessary.

According to Aspaas, who works primarily in wedge weaving and rug dresses, artists aren’t necessarily accustomed to such a level of involvement in a state museum exhibition, and it took time to acclimate.

“In the initial meetings we talked about what the reasons were behind the show, why were we doing this, who is this for?” he explains. “One of the things we came to was that we wanted to make [the exhibit] for the communities the weavings come from, for people back home on the reservation. The majority of exhibits are done by collectors, gallery owners, trading post owners and ‘experts’ in the field. Horizons became more about the odds and ends of Navajo weaving—and they’re beautiful—and not just through the colonial view of how we look at art.”

Artist once known (Diné). Wearing blanket with spider design 1860-1880. Handspun wool, commercial wool yarn, indigo dye, vegetal dye. Museum of Indian Arts & Culture/Laboratory of Anthropology, gift of Mrs. Philip B. Stewart, Courtesy of John and Linda Comstock and the Abigail Van Vleck Charitable Trust. 9124/12. (Addison Doty)

Aspaas, like the rest of the advisory committee, comes from a long lineage of artistry and says he has been more familiar with institutions looking for a quick quote or minimal rundown when it comes to advisory roles. He sees Begay and Jensen’s curatorial efforts and the museum’s support as refreshing, and part of a broader trend that puts institutional power into the hands of Native artists.

“There’s a big shift going on, and not just in Diné weaving,” he tells SFR. “It’s in all the different art forms the tribes have, and it’s going back to why we’re doing this. Who is controlling the narrative? We have control of the narrative. Today we don’t have to use a middleman to show and sell our pieces—we have social media, websites—and this also creates a shift in the places that house these pieces and what we want to say about them.”

Tapaha agrees.

“Hadley Jensen has been a pal and acquaintance in the textiles scene and she found me and pitched the idea of the advisory committee formally, but also informally,” Tapapha says with a laugh. “The whole premise is pushing forward the idea of curating this show from weavers for weavers, and it was this odd fusion that fell together in a great way. I’ve never experienced anything like that in terms of exhibiting. Other shows that include advisors…it’s more like, ‘Cool, tell me five things about that piece,’ but this group felt like…we were passionate about the works we wanted to show and the narrative and personality of the show.”

Part of the personality lies in interpretative choices. For example, contemporary artists explain the significance in the design, materials, emotional tone or history of the many historic “artists once known” works in their own attributed words on gallery signage, and Begay and Jensen collected a soundscape that fills the exhibition space with the bleats of sheep and the scrape of wool being carded.

Both Tapaha and Aspaas have work in Horizons and both have their own flocks of Churro sheep from which they derive their wool. Aspaas calls the shearing, spinning and dyeing “the hard part,” and says the fun comes into play when he’s actually working the loom to create his pieces.

Cover Story “Horizons as a curatorial a pretty sound concept,” says Horizons co-curator and photographer Rapheal Begay, whose landscape shots—like this one of Spider Rock in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, or Tséyi´—appear in the show. (Rapheal Begay)

Both artists have weavers in their family dating back generations, and while knowledge like theirs passed down over years through Diné weaving communities hasn’t quite hit the mainstream, Horizons seeks to demystify the artistry and, just as importantly, the stories.

“Historically, Navajo textiles have been displayed on a wall and you don’t get a sense of how they were used,” Jensen notes. “They were made to be used as clothing, they were traded widely and it was only relatively recently they became collector’s items. We’re trying, I think, to reframe the categories through which people see these weavings.”

Advisor Raymond-Overstreet, for example, knows a little something about that. Her great grandmother Christine Raymond was a weaver, she tells SFR—and a prolific one at that—and she mainly used her pieces to trade and provide for her family.

“I grew up with the understanding,” Raymond-Overstreet says, “that weaving was a motive for caring for family.”

Raymond-Overstreet’s father was a graphite illustrator, though never professionally. And though she attended Dartmouth with plans to go into forestry work, she says supportive professors led her toward more artistic pursuits.

Horizons advisor Tyrrell Tapaha (left) and co-curator Hadley Jensen at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s opening weekend hoopla for the exhibition. (Rapheal Begay)

Today, those pursuits touch on traditional ideas, including weaving patterns and photography, though she catapults both into the contempo-digital age as a means of examining collective Diné identity, including her own. Raymond-Overstreet employs a complicated process that merges weaving designs with digital portraiture, photography and landscapes. The back and forth method might be the most concise encapsulation of what Horizons is all about—the way things wend and weave through time by evolving generationally, from hand to hand, iteration to iteration.

“Primarily I describe myself as a digital artist—the medium I’m working with is pixels,” she says. “For me, because of the significance and importance weaving has in our community…I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a weaver, but I’m a Diné artist inspired by the weaving tradition.”

And there it is—a link between the past and present represented with evolving tools that pay homage to the old ways while adding a modern flair that drives customary art forms forward.

“While Horizons is an opportunity to show MIAC’s collection, it was also important to us to put that in dialogue with the work of contemporary Diné artists,” Jensen says. “To create these deep connections, to show there’s still deep engagement. But what’s so interesting to me is how that kind of visual language of weaving has found its way into different media.”

Take the photographic work of Begay, whose large, looming landscapes portray the terrain that inspired countless textile designs. For his own part, he says, the creative tradition isn’t specifically about medium so much as a powerful connection between artists, friends and families; the land and the culture.

“This is an ideal opportunity to showcase the beauty and significance of community that is inherently found within the Diné culture,” he explains. “For me, working with institutions, collaborating with galleries and artists and cultural leadership…something that’s always come up is this hesitancy to incorporate love into an exhibition. But it’s an asset.”

Heart-forward does seem to be the name of the game for Horizons. But that requires trust. According to Tapaha, Jensen facilitated the show with her own expertise, but made way for the committee in most cases.

“She did a great job stepping aside,” they say. “I think that’s really unique; one, because you don’t find as many women curators in the position Hadley is in and two, her work is tied to a cultural medium and she understands she can’t speak for us. You don’t really have museums wanting to consult with weavers, with artists themselves, but that was one of her main focal points.”

“It wasn’t just about having the expertise of people who have studied or built up their professions in art,” adds advisor Larissa Nez. “What makes this really unique is that there’s a number of different perspectives.”

Nez has a background in art history and is currently attending UC Berkeley in pursuit of her PhD in ethnic studies; the best way to describe her input to Horizons might be “scholarly.” Nez is a weaver herself (though the show doesn’t feature her weavings, but rather her writing) and near-fluent in Navajo, which makes her instrumental not only in selecting pieces from the MIAC collection for the exhibit, but in making sure the language used in the show is properly implemented.

“I think there’s a balance,” she continues. “Lynda Teller-Pete is a fifth-generation weaver; Tyrrell and Kevin are within this generation of emerging weavers but changing the way it’s done and talked about…these relationships to weaving are translated into the exhibit. The work we wanted to see is grounded in having people understand the human aspect, the community aspect of weaving. And now we want that to continue in our own work.”

Homage is indeed a big part of the show. According to Teller-Pete, who served in the lead advisory position on the committee, it was important to illustrate how some designs and methods are timeless. As such, she says, the show’s nonlinear sequencing conveys the circuitous nature of the Diné weaving ethic. More contemporary pieces, it turns out, fit in perfectly with older ones: a 1960 black and white play on leaves fits next to an 1895 wedge pattern in red.

“In Navajo, we don’t work that way,” she says of eschewing chronology. “As weavers, we don’t see straight lines—we see movement, we see beauty in those movements, and we weave it.”

Teller-Pete will show one of her earlier pieces on loan from the Heard Museum titled “Migration of the Dragonflies” in the show, and her sister, the master weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas, and nephew, Michael Teller Ornelas, will also be featured. Teller-Pete says she not only sees the show as a way to highlight astounding creativity and resilience, but to educate visitors about the histories behind singular pieces and broader traditions. Similarly to Jensen, Teller-Pete hopes museumgoers will leave better equipped to understand the cultural significance of textiles; the joy of some, the hard truths of others.

“Some of the works in the show have been created in the most tumultuous times, like incarceration and slavery,” she tells SFR. “One of the blankets in there is a slave blanket, and the weaver put four white Spider Woman crosses at the end—that’s her resistance and her hope she would one day return home to the Navajo Nation. If a person wasn’t trained in Navajo textiles, they’re going to look at it and think those crosses represent Christianity. Not so.”

In short, the Spider Woman story tells of the deity who gifted the Diné with the knowledge to weave. Teller-Pete has been an educator herself. Her reputation to those familiar with textiles and weaving, and her knowledge of the stories behind the patterns and designs woven throughout them make her contributions to Horizons feel particularly powerful, and like the others from the advisory cohort, she, too, found the process enlightening and long overdue.

“It’s new,” she says, “It’s different because I am no longer a prop. I’ve been involved in a lot of exhibitions for textiles where I show up, I don’t get listened to or what I say is distorted in the captions and catalogs. This time our group is made of weavers and artists and all of our voices are entwined with our ancestors.”

Horizons, Teller-Pete says, embodies the Diné concept of K’é.

“That means support, friendship, assistance,” she explains. “It means caring what you do for family, and I think with the work we did here…that’s what we did. And we hope visitors will ask questions. We hope many weavers come to see it. It was exciting to see these pieces that haven’t been seen in such a long time.”

Jensen and Begay, meanwhile, seem energized despite the mountain of curatorial work they’ve completed alongside the committee. Horizons will run until next summer and has a catalog forthcoming, and while neither curator expects this one exhibit to be the final word on Diné weaving in the museum world, it does feel like a step toward having more fully realized conversations about evolving institutional responsibilities to the communities they exhibit.

“It’s a bit of a strange role to be in,” says Jensen. “It’s great, in a way, because you do have a lot of creative freedom, but we’re trying to bring specificity to this historic collection.”

“Something that has been really beautiful about all of this is the notions of storytelling, kinship, relationships as modes of existence,” Begay notes. “To relate to something that’s bigger than you? A past, a present, the future? It’s a very humbling experience.”

Horizons: Weaving Between the Lines with Diné Textiles: Through June 2, 2024. Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, 710 Camino Lejo, (505) 476-1269

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