Nothing sings of the American Southwest like a Navajo blanket. Those deeply saturated, sun-baked colors. Those rectangular patterns, flat-topped as mesas. Those contrasts of hue and shape like the clash of earth and sky on a faraway horizon. Everything on a Navajo blanket pulses with Southwestern light.
The Navajo textile tradition is one of the most celebrated in the long history of fiber art, and “Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles,” on view at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 2, demonstrates why. This generous, sumptuous show spills out of the main exhibition space and into its neighboring gallery like desert sunshine.
“Color Riot!” includes 70 blankets, ranging from humble pillow covers to giant, shimmering stunners that put Medieval tapestries to shame. There is also a video demonstration of a blanket being woven and an exhibition of spindles and dyes and other elements of the blanket maker’s trade, plus an original musical composition inspired by the movement of thread on a loom. It’s not quite right to call the show an extravaganza, because everything about it feels measured and firmly under the curator’s control. But the museum has widened its scope and bestowed upon us an exhibition as immersive as any that has been mounted in the Garden State this year.
“Color Riot!” comes to us from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, one of the world’s great repositories of Native American craft and history. While it is possible to appreciate this show on a purely visceral level, the curation gently encourages visitors to educate themselves about the conditions surrounding the production of these gorgeous objects. Many of the blankets on display were created in the aftermath of the mass Navajo relocation to Bosque Redondo, which was, to put it bluntly, a concentration camp. During the 1860s — a period of open conflict between the Navajo and the United States government — thousands of Native Americans were marched across the desert from Arizona to eastern New Mexico and held there for many years.
For those Navajo artists so confined, weaving was not merely a therapeutic activity. It was a way of ensuring continuity with history. No wonder the stakes of these pieces feel as high as they do.
Remarkably, the Navajo weavers interned at Bosque Redondo did not turn inward. Instead, they absorbed elements from a not-so-friendly outside world: motifs and visual rhythms from the Spanish colonists, pigments and manufactured materials from the United States. And although their relationship to the land was transformed by circumstance, they never lost touch with the vastness of the natural world and the visual splendor of the Southwest. None of the blanket makers represented high skies, jagged mountains and blue creeks, or deliberately evoked the distinctive desert color palette. They didn’t have to. It’s all right there, in between every stitch. “Color Riot!” presents Bosque Redondo as a kind of crucible: a place where, under enormous pressure, weavers were able to consolidate the aesthetic elements of a great traditional form and extend them in directions they hadn’t yet traveled — even though they couldn’t travel at all.
The outpouring of creativity in the decades after the Bosque Redondo experience was not simply driven by misfortune. Innovation and personal expression were then, and still are, Navajo values. Just as every Navajo chief was different, every “chief’s blanket” was a singular artifact. Several walls of “Color Riot!” are dedicated to chief’s blankets, which were thrown around the shoulders — and had considerable utility on Southwestern plains, where it gets awfully brisk at night. Some are decorated with concentric squares, others festooned with crosses and symbols, and others adorned with lightning-flash zigzags. Tight stripes, parallel diagonal lines and diamond shapes combine to create optical effects that are legitimately psychedelic: They generate blurs, shimmers, vertiginous distortions, a feeling of depth and motion.
Artisans also experimented, sometimes radically, with form and process. “Color Riot!” includes several gorgeous examples of the Navajo wedge weave — a diagonal weft against a straight warp that causes the edges of the blankets to buckle. The result is a feeling of dimensionality and a pleasant sense of overstuffing, with zigzags appearing to spill over the edges of the blanket in a great cascade. A century and a half after its development, the wedge weave still feels like a major departure from fiber art expectation, and its unorthodox quality is an influence on the newer works, all inspired by Navajo tradition, that adorn the exhibition’s entrance hall.
“Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” is not a particularly polemical show. It contextualizes this work in the Bosque Redondo experience, then turns its attention to the glory of the textiles. Rightfully so.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to view “Color Riot!” without a sense of outrage. The artisans who created these objects of care and comfort were subjected to abominable conditions: dirty water, scarce resources, forced assimilation, confinement with rival tribes, institutionalized disrespect. Navajo blankets aren’t liberation flags, but they do represent a cultural tradition that Uncle Sam, try though he did, could not stamp out.
Bosque Redondo is gone, but the Navajo blankets are still here, and still inspiring new craftspeople. As a living example of the triumph of art over oppression, you can’t do much better than that.
“Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” will be at the Montclair Art Museum through Jan. 2. Visit montclairartmuseum.org.
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