General Statements: The Montclair Art Museum’s Dynamic Textile Exhibition Has Serious Subtext


This 1880s Navajo blanket is on display at “Color Riot!” How Color Changed Navajo Textiles ”at the Montclair Art Museum.

Nothing sings the American Southwest like a Navajo blanket. These colors deeply saturated and baked in the sun. These rectangular patterns, with a flat top like mesas. These contrasts of color and form like the clash of the earth and the sky on a distant horizon. Everything on a Navajo blanket vibrates 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 display at the Montclair Art Museum until January 2, shows why. This generous and sumptuous spectacle spills over from the main exhibition space and into its neighboring gallery like the desert sun.

“Color riot! Includes 70 covers, ranging from humble pillow cases to giant, shimmering stunners that put medieval tapestries to shame. There is also a video demonstration of a blanket being woven and an exhibit of bobbins and dyes and other elements of the blanket making trade, as well as an original musical composition inspired by the movement of the yarn on a loom. weave. It is not entirely fair to call the show an extravaganza, as everything there is measured and firmly under the control of the curator. But the museum has broadened its reach and offered us an exhibit as immersive as any that has been mounted in the Garden State this year.

“Color riot! Comes from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, one of the world’s largest repositories of Native American craftsmanship and history. If it is possible to appreciate this spectacle on a purely visceral level, the police station kindly encourages visitors to inquire about the conditions of manufacture of these magnificent objects. Most of the blankets on display were created as a result of the massive relocation of the Navajo to Bosque Redondo, which was, to put it bluntly, a concentration camp. During the 1860s – a time of open conflict between the Navajo and the United States government – thousands of Native Americans crossed the Arizona desert east to New Mexico and were detained there for many many years.

A Navajo blanket (circa 1900).

For these Navajo artists so confined, weaving was not just a therapeutic activity. It was a way of ensuring continuity with the story. No wonder the stakes for these coins are as high as they are.

Remarkably, the Navajo weavers interned at Bosque Redondo did not turn in on themselves. Instead, they absorbed elements of a not-so-friendly outside world: visual patterns and rhythms of Spanish settlers, pigments and manufactured materials from the United States. And although their relationship to the land has been transformed by the circumstances, they have never lost touch with the vastness of the natural world and the visual splendor of the Southwest. None of the blanket makers depicted high skies, jagged mountains and blue coves, or deliberately evoked the distinctive color palette of the desert. They didn’t have to. Everything is there, between each point. “Color riot! Presents Bosque Redondo as a sort of melting pot: a place where, under tremendous pressure, the weavers were able to consolidate the aesthetic elements of a large traditional form and extend them in directions they had not yet traveled – even if they couldn’t travel at all.

The outpouring of creativity in the decades following the Bosque Redondo experience was not simply motivated by misfortune. Innovation and personal expression were then and still are Navajo values. Just as every Navajo chieftain was different, every “chieftain’s blanket” was a unique artifact. Several walls of “Color Riot!” are dedicated to chef’s blankets, which have been thrown around the shoulders – and have had considerable use in the southwestern plains, where it gets terribly lively at night. Some are decorated with concentric squares, others scalloped with crosses and symbols, and others adorned with zigzags of lightning. Tight stripes, parallel diagonal lines and diamonds combine to create legitimately psychedelic optical effects: they generate blurs, shimmers, dizzying distortions, a feeling of depth and movement.

Craftsmen also experiment, sometimes radically, the form and the process. “Color riot! Includes several beautiful examples of Navajo wedge weave – a diagonal weft against a straight warp that warps the edges of the blankets. The result is a sense of dimensionality and a pleasant padding feel, with zigzags seeming to spill over the edges of the blanket in a grand cascade. A century and a half after its development, wedge weaving still looks like a major departure from the expectations of fiber art, and its unorthodox quality has an influence on more recent works, all inspired by the Navajo tradition. , which adorn the entrance hall of the exhibition.

“Prism of Emotions” by Venancio Francis Aragon (2019)

“Color riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles ”is not a particularly controversial program. He contextualizes this work in the Bosque Redondo experience, then turns his attention to the glory of textiles. Well Named.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to see “Color Riot!” without feeling of indignation. The craftsmen who created these objects of care and comfort were subjected to abominable conditions: dirty water, scarce resources, forced assimilation, confinement with rival tribes, institutionalized lack of respect. Navajo blankets are not flags of liberation, but they represent a cultural tradition that Uncle Sam, despite his best efforts, was unable to eradicate.

Bosque Redondo is gone, but the Navajo blankets are still there and still inspire new artisans. As a living example of the triumph of art over oppression, you can’t do better than this.

“Color riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles ”will be at the Montclair Art Museum until January 2. Visit

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