Collecting Contemporary Navajo Weavings

Some possible new directions for contemporary Navajo weavings

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It is possible that the next ten years of Navajo weaving may see more change than any other ten year period in the history of the craft! Change, however, is nothing new to the Navajo people. In fact, it is this ability to change, or adapt, that has made the Navajo people who they are today.

Since the very day the Navajo began to work with wool, their weaving designs, colors, sizes, shapes, textures and uses have been in a constant state of evolution. Something that makes Navajo weavings tremendously collectible is the fact that they change and become historically significant, or datable, very quickly.

A case in point

Weavings that were created as recently as the 1970s incorporated certain elements of color and design that we do not see weavers using today. Therefore we can examine a weaving by sight alone, and if these characteristics exist, we can comfortably state that it was woven in this time period (ie. the 1970s). Hence, it represents a particular period in the history of Navajo weaving. This "test" can be used for every time period that the Navajo have been weaving with wool.

In addition to such minor transitions, there have also been two major transitions:

First: from a blanket to a floor rug, 1870 - 1910

Second: from a floor rug to fine art, 1970 - ?

Lena Curtiss
Lena Curtiss "Blue Canyon" 40" x 58"
Photograph courtesy of Michael Webb

As one can see, we are still in the latter transition into art. Although much has been accomplished in this transition, there is still room for growth. The growth that is foreseen is a growth into independence in which the weaver considers herself an artist free from classic trading-post styles and able to weave unconventional designs. An example is "Blue Canyon," an abstract, asymmetrical, raised outline design by Lena Curtiss.

This is not an isolated case of a weaver "gone astray." Many weavers are veering off and doing something that represents them as individuals. Because of this individualism, it is becoming increasingly easy to identify certain weavers.

For the past 100 plus years the weavings were identified by region or style; therefore, the weaver's name was not a factor in determining the value of the weaving . . . its value was determined by quality alone.

It's possible this could change. Along with individualized designs, we have seen an increasing number of weavers exhibiting their work in competitions and shows and marketing their weavings directly to galleries, and in some cases directly to the collector . . . eliminating the historic role of the trader altogether.

Isn't this the kind of "marketing" an artist is supposed to do? To promote his or her name? After all, the better-known the artist, the higher the price they can demand for their art.

However, there is some debate on this subject. No honorable trader, dealer or collector would deny the weaver the credit, nor the fame, for what she has accomplished. But there are those who believe that Navajo weaving is a pure art form, and to distort the values by putting a premium on specific weavers' artwork would be a huge disservice to the entire market—past, present and future.

Many questions deserve to be raised

Will collecting Navajo weavings become an elitist sport or will "lay people" still be able to buy a quality Navajo weaving?

Will the young people still be enthusiastic to learn the art?

Who will buy the "beginner rugs" if the trader no longer plays a role?

How will the average buyer/potential collector know who is famous and who is not?

How will weavers respond to legitimate demands that the gallery expects from an artist, for example an exclusivity contract, consignment, advertising arrangements and gallery appearances by the artist?

With all the shows, competitions, gallery appearances and time on the road selling her work to various galleries, what will happen to the traditional way of life that is important and expected of her?

We must also consider the possibility that, if the weavers do not achieve recognition for individual artistry, their interest in expanding the art may wane for lack of reward. For the first time in history, Navajo weaving could be at a standstill!

"Traditionalists" need not fear

Most likely, we will always have the classic Teec Nos Pos, Ganado, Two Grey Hills, Storm, Yei, etc, being woven for the contemporary market. This type of weaving is too deeply embedded into the market to ever lose their appeal. The question that remains is what will the "new" styles resemble, and who will be responsible for their creation and promotion?

Fortunately, the answers are not mine to give, just to ponder. Nor is there a rush to have these questions answered today. If there is one thing we have learned from the past, it is that the art of Navajo weaving does not have any brakes . . . but it does have a steering wheel. And for the first 200 plus years the Navajo artisans did a fine job at the wheel! For the last 100 plus years, it was the trader who steered us well. We can now only trust that whoever takes the wheel from here steers us as well. Based upon what I've seen in the past few months, it is going to be an interesting ride!


By Michael Webb whose family has operated Navajo Indian trading posts for five generations and was among the first crop of traders to come onto the Navajo Nation.

Originally appeared in
The Collector’s Guide to the Albuquerque Metro Area - Volume 9


Related Pages

A Personal Look at Navajo Weavings article
Textiles as Art article

The Thread of New Mexico article
Contemporary Navajo Folk Art article


Collector’s Resources

Looking at Appraisal altgif Feature article by Philip Bareiss |

Albuquerque

House of the Shalako rem By Appointment in Peralta | 505-242-4579
The Navajo Rug, LLC 535 Los Ranchos Road NW | 505-897-5005

Santa Fe

Chimayo Trading & Mercantile | 505-351-4566
Laura Center Navajo Rug Restoration PO Box 8455 | 505-982-5663
Museum of Indian Arts and Culture | 505-476-1250
Seppanen & Daughters Fine Textiles, Inc | 505-424-7470

RESOURCE LISTS UPDATED WHEN VIEWED | ARTICLE CONTENT REVISED September 24, 2007

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