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Historic Navajo weaving in modern context

By Djamila Noelle Grossman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, October 21, 2004
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Whoever thought Navajo weaving was just some method to produce rugs should maybe think twice. It is artwork that reflects pieces of the weaver's life, just as a painting does. It can be quite fashionable and was made for the weaver to look awesome.

"People can just think about it differently. They think of Indian art and clothing. But it is made by someone who wanted to look good, someone who is vain. Those pieces were made by people who paid attention to style, color choice and aesthetics," said Sierra Ornelas.

Siblings Sierra and Michael Ornelas, both UA students, and their mother are all Navajo weavers. They collaborated with the ASM staff to combine firsthand knowledge and theoretical expertise.

Sierra and Michael grew up with the handcraft. Their mother would always work at home.

"I didn't know that other moms didn't weave. I thought everyone's mom was a world-famous weaver," said Sierra. Both started making their own rugs at an early age, but Sierra insists that there is a major difference between hers and Michael's.

"I always say I weave, but my brother is a weaver. He's really amazing at it. I'm passing down the knowledge of weaving to as many people as I can. Weaving reflects the time in which you live and your job is to create art that reflects how you feel and who you are at that time," Sierra said.

Sierra, a media arts senior, has shown and sold her work at the Heard Museum's Indian Market in Phoenix. As a filmmaker, she has also produced a documentary and several video clips for the exhibit.

Michael, a pre-computer science sophomore, has been weaving since he was 13. Named "Best of Show" at the Heard Museum's Student competition in 2003, some of his works are even in the Museum's permanent collection. He has been featured in "Native Peoples" magazine and is exhibiting his work at the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, N.M.

There are going to be two galleries, one displaying historical weaving from the 1800s to the late 1900s in the form of blankets, bedding and clothing. The other one is featuring the "Santa-Fe Collection," an assembly of privately owned modern Navajo weavings. Additionally there are going to be rugs from four generations of the Ornelas Family.

Because of the few things they might know about that time, it might have been hard for viewers to connect to the very old rugs emotionally. But that problem was resolved.

"Nobody knew the women who made the rugs in the historical gallery. What we were trying to do is to give a voice to those weavers by speculating on how we feel about them. By putting them more in a modern context. For example, we have historical photos and videos," said Sierra.

People should realize that even though the old weaver's work served a utility, art was still an aspect of it, reflecting the artist's life.

"Some of the pieces were made during the long walk, when the Navajos were being oppressed, were being murdered. You see some of the most beautiful work. It's this purging of emotion," said Sierra.

The two galleries connect not only in the type of art they display, but also in the intention behind that art.

"They're both artists reacting to the time they're living. And so they're both making art reflecting the time in which they're living. It's the same kind of art, but in different environments." Sierra said. "The whole point of the exhibit is to sort of juxtapose modern and historical weaving, to understand more about each kind of weaving."

Navajo Weaving at Arizona State Museum: "19th Century Blankets, 20th Century Rugs, 21st Century Views" opens Saturday, from 10 a.m.- 3p.m. Admission is free. It is also the first day of the "Open House" at ASM, offering a variety of things to see and do: Museum researchers, archaeologists, and curators will explain their work and answer questions. Wool spinning, dyeing and weaving are going to be available for everyone. Navajo rugs, rare Southwest books and magazines will be on sale.

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