ST. PETERSBURG — In these dark times, the exhibition “Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg is a welcome display of color and pattern — a vibrant escape from the gloom.
Organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where it debuted in 2019, the exhibition explores the color and design experimentation that came into Navajo textiles during the late 19th century.
These works were born out of a dark time for the Navajo people. Between 1863 and 1868, they were forced by the U.S. Army from their homeland on what’s known as the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo, an imprisonment site in New Mexico. During that period, Navajos were given commercial yarn and 1,000 Hispanic blankets as part of rations. The weavers were exposed to different patterns from which they then borrowed design elements.
The Navajos subsequently returned to their diminished homelands and onto a reservation. Upon return, markets where indigenous Navajo weavings were traded were gone. Coupled with the influx of commercial Germantown and Saxony yarns and aniline dyes, textiles took a leap outside of neutral color palettes from homespun wool and natural dyes into vibrant color and expanded design schemes. Weavers felt free to experiment and change. This experimental time between 1868 and 1910 is known as the Transitional Period.
After that period, as trading came back stronger, traders began dictating what design elements were more marketable, based on Oriental rugs. Weavers were told to make textiles less colorful.
The exhibition was curated by three Navajo women on the Heard’s staff: Ninabah Winton and Natalia Miles, who are fellows of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Velma Kee Craig, a former fellow who is now an assistant curator at the museum and oversees the fellowship program. Ann Marshall, director of research at the Heard, also co-curated. The women participated in the research, selection and preparation of the exhibition.
“Color Riot!” came to fruition when the Heard Museum was planning an exhibition from the Guggenheim, “Josef Albers in Mexico,” and planned a small companion exhibit of the weavings that echoed Albers’ graphic, colorful style. They delved into the Heard’s collection and found a number of weavings from the Transitional Period. Nearby collectors contributed and the exhibition grew to stand on its own.
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Visually, “Color Riot!” makes an impact. There are 89 textiles in all, some stacked high on a vast gallery wall. The exhibition is divided into nine sections, each one as vibrant as the next.
Stephanie Chill is the curatorial lead of the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. She worked closely with the Heard Museum and led a tour at a preview event in December.
“The curators looked at dividing up these themes by design and pattern style,” she said. “They did that by looking at the elements and the motifs that we see in the textiles that break away from what is more commonly known as Navajo textiles. A lot of what people are familiar with are really trader-imposed ideas.”
These textiles from the Transitional Period were unknown to many, even Craig, the curator from the Heard, who is a weaver herself.
“If you look at books about Navajo weaving, they’re mostly covering the classic periods and catalogs put out by traders after 1910,” she said in a phone interview. “It has been ignored because the others were so easy to classify.”
Craig said it was a special experience for herself, Winton and Miles to discover the textiles in the museum’s collection and in collector’s homes.
“There’s always a reverence when we’re approaching a new textile,” she said. “We all have an experience with someone weaving in our home, the sound of weaving, the smell of yarn. For all of us it brings us back to our childhood.”
Individual artists’ names are not known because the textiles were traded or sold without identification. Not much is known about the stories behind the textiles either, but the curators’ research provides compelling information about the work.
The exhibition opens with Chief Blankets, the styles of which changed between 1870 and 1885 and were known as Transitional Chief Blankets or Chief Blanket Variants. Diamond patterns emerged and took on new movement. Contrary to the name, the garments weren’t strictly reserved for leaders.
Banded blankets are one of the oldest design types in Navajo weaving. But in the Transitional Period artists were introducing diamond patterns and curving lines, updating the banded style.
A section of square patterns is believed to have come from design elements of Navajo basketry.
Diamond design elements became a regular motif, with straight or stepped edges.
There are two non-Navajo Hispanic textiles in the exhibition, included for reference of how the design elements were transformed into their own patterns. Vertical orientations are another influence from the Hispanic blankets.
Some of the weavings are made from a combination of hand-spun wool and commercial yarns. As the use of Germantown and Saxony yarns increased, patterns became more intricate.
The zigzag patterns of colorful wedge weave textiles make the eyes dance.
“These textiles are really where the term ‘eye dazzler’ is thought to come from and early on in scholarship it was a pejorative term,” Chill said. “The colors and constant zigzags were called ‘garish’ and ‘gaudy’ and it wasn’t until the 1970s when scholars started to look at these as expressions and ingenuity in artistic design and vision.”
She said that the contrast in colors and motion created in not only wedge weave but in much of the Navajo weavings is meant to express movement of life.
Colorful saddle blankets, saddle throws and pillow coverings were often collected by tourists, especially with the expansion of the railroads. They would bring them home to decorate their “Indian dens.”
There are a lot of factors in how much time it takes to make a weaving, Chill said, from the complexity of the design, to the skill of the weaver, to how many colors are being used. She said that smaller ones could take a few weeks or a few months, whereas larger ones could take months or even years.
In some of the textiles, it’s evident when the weaver ran out of a particular color of yarn and picked up with another, a pleasing reminder of them being made by hand.
While the meanings of many of the weavings are unknown, one blanket with a slit in the center is a reference to the Spider Woman, the deity that gave weaving to the Navajo people.
The exhibition ends with a section on contemporary works from Navajo weavers called Still Rioting!
“One of the big takeaways is that experimentation is still here,” Craig said. “The tradition is still thriving.”
Marilou Schultz pushed the boundaries with a wedge weave technique on her piece, Tó Éí líná/ Water Is Life. The weaving becomes sculptural.
And Craig’s ingenious weaving, Bar Code/QR Code, is an American flag with a QR code for the stars. She was inspired to make it while noticing how many homes in her neighborhood were being foreclosed. Noticing a QR code on a For Sale sign, she set out to include it in her piece. It took almost a year to complete because of how laborious it was to copy the QR code. After bringing it to the Heard Museum’s weaver’s market, people started scanning the code and it took them to the real estate agency’s website, much to Craig’s surprise.
Ingenuity, the spirit of the Navajo people and their ability to adapt pervade “Color Riot!” It’s hard to leave the exhibition, and you’ll definitely want to return.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct curator Natalia Miles’ name. An earlier version had an incorrect last name.
If you go
“Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg through March 14. Tickets must be reserved online at mfastpete.org for timed entry in accordance with the museum’s COVID-19 safety measures. A virtual conversation between “Color Riot!” co-curator Velma Kee Craig and Seminole artist Jessica Osceola happens on Thursday, Feb . 25 at 7 p.m. Learn more and register here. $20, $15 seniors/active military/Florida educators/college students, $10 children ages 7-17, free for children 6 and younger and members. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, noon-8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. The museum is closed on Mondays. 255 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg. (727) 896-2667.