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New exhibit celebrates timeless Navajo textiles

The new exhibition, "Navajo Weavings: Tradition and Trade," opening July 14 the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, honors the creativity and culture of Navajo weavers.

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. ­— For generations, anonymous Navajo women working on hand looms created brilliantly colored, boldly designed pictorial blankets and rugs as was their longstanding cultural and artistic tradition.

Insights of Navajo Weavings

Pictorial Man's wearing blanket

Pictorial man’s wearing blanket, chief’s blanket The Navajo Nation, 1855-1865 Native handspun wool, bayeta and natural dye. (All photos courtesy of The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg/ Lucke Collection)

They adapted and modified their weavings from the world around them. In turn, they created an art form that is uniquely theirs. It also provides insight into the Navajo culture at the turn of the 19th century. On July 14, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, one of the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg, opens “Navajo Weavings: Tradition and Trade¸” an opportunity to view 26 examples of these colorful and symbolic items on loan from the collection of American folk art enthusiasts Pat and Rex Lucke. The exhibition is scheduled to remain on view until May 31, 2020. Through the woven motifs of these textiles, visitors can learn what was important to the makers among the Diné. This is the term the Navajo use to refer to themselves. The word means “the People." It also helps others gain a sense of their aspirations.

An anonymous donor is funding the exhibition.

“The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg strive to present exhibitions that address the broad range of American culture,” said Ronald L. Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “We are particularly pleased to share this important body of Navajo weavings from the Southwest with our audiences and are grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Lucke for their generous loan.”

Begins With Blankets

The earliest of Navajo weavings are blankets. They also appear as “chief blankets” in descriptions.

Pictorial weaving

Pictorial weaving the Navajo Nation, 1910-1920 commercial wool and dye.

These textiles are made with a simple, horizontally striped and banded design and format. Among the highlights of “Navajo Weavings” is the oldest, remaining Navajo blanket that contains pictorial elements. This example, dates to between 1855 and 1865, is of native handspun wool, bayeta (raveled wool trade cloth to create the red color) and natural dye. it is elegant in its simplicity and classic proportions.

The anonymous weaver used traditional formations found in the classic style of its time period showing black and white stripes. The weaver also had the freedom to individualize the piece with personal experiences and outside influences from trade. Six stylized horses – symbols of power and wealth – in the center horizontal anchor points are the exception to the traditional design in this piece; the horses are stylistically similar to those found on early Navajo petroglyphs dating to 1800. Many weavings created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries included imaginatively stylized horse images. This signifies their importance to the Diné.

Pictorial Weavings Reflect Cultural Changes

(After Spanish Conquistadors brought horses to the Southwest in the 17th century, the Peoples’ way of life became anew as horses were a form of transportation, warfare and commerce.)

Navajo Nation sampler

Sampler The Navajo Nation, ca. 1890 Commercial wool, cotton, dye and soft wood.

“Navajo pictorial weavings provide an insight into the cultural changes of the Diné and a record of their daily life,” said Kimberly Smith Ivey, senior curator of textiles at Colonial Williamsburg. “The Navajo weaver integrated traditional Diné imagery and symbolism with images of modern life influenced by trade and other cultures. The best examples reveal aspects of the artist’s personality and imagination, such as an independent spirit and sense of humor.”

Almost all Navajo pictorial weavings show objects or scenes that are common on the native lands. They combine objects from modern, everyday life with traditional imagery. Another highlight in this extraordinary collection is a small weaving example of commercial wool, cotton and dye from about 1890.

Intersection of Tradition and Trade

Tradition meets trade in this piece that depicts corn, a sacred plant used in Navajo ceremonies, and a modern locomotive. Small weavings such as this one, are “samplers” or “loom samplers.” They are the work of Navajo weavers as “works-in-progress” on looms and as complete textiles. These smaller objects were popular with tourists because they were less expensive and could be easily transported.

For more information about the exhibit, visit or call 855-296-6627. 

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