‘Color Riot’ – A vibrant look at Navajo resilience, at the Montclair Art Museum

“Riot of Colors!” How Color Changed Navajo Textiles showcases 70 vivid works of art from the 1800s to the present day. (COURTESY OF THE MUSÉE D’ART DE MONTCLAIR)

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The new exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum features 70 vivid works – some dating to the 1800s – illustrating the experimentation of Navajo weaving and highlighting the resilience of the culture.

“Riot of Colors!” How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” includes works from 1860 to 1930, as well as contemporary artists. The historical textiles, according to the museum, are rooted in the period between 1863 and 1868, when the United States government forcibly placed 10,000 Diné – another name for the Navajo people, in their own language – in Bosque Redondo, a internment camp at Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The exhibition uses the terms Diné and Navajo interchangeably.

At that time, Diné weavers were influenced by Hispanic textiles. According to the museum, they incorporated aniline dyes and mass-produced wool yarns in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. The exhibition takes the public through time and shows how weavers influenced each other with their creations.

“This exhibit and the historic weavings date from a particular time when Diné weavers were rebuilding and recovering from great historical trauma and real social crisis,” said Laura J. Allen, Curator of Native American Art at the mma. She coordinated the exhibition, first organized by the Heard Museum in Phoenix, for the MAM. “And so, the weaves are so expressive, so colorful, so experimental because of that story. They weaved to heal and weaved to express themselves. This is therefore the real story of the exhibition.

“Color Riot” also includes works by nine highly regarded contemporary Diné weavers, including DY Begay and Marilou Schultz, and new artists Melissa Cody and Venancio Francis Aragon. It “really highlights how their work draws on the past and pushes the medium forward in exciting new directions,” Allen said.

As visitors reach the end of “Color Riot” at the Montclair Art Museum, they will encounter some of the greatest textiles in the exhibit. (COURTESY OF THE MUSÉE D’ART DE MONTCLAIR)

In curating the exhibition for Montclair, Allen wanted to start with contemporary textiles, a change from previous exhibitions, which ended with them. The exhibit isn’t presented on a timeline, Allen said, but rather by style.

“There are a few weavings in the exhibit that date from before the internment camp. They reflect an older pattern, they don’t use synthetic dyes,” Allen said. “Another part of the exhibit highlights those Hispanic textiles that had a big influence on them.”

She worked with Larissa Nez – a Diné scholar and member of ArtTable, which focuses on advancing leadership in the visual arts – in organizing the exhibition for Montclair.

Walking through the exhibition, visitors will encounter a special room in the center – designed by Allen and Nez as a space for reflection, with music played by Connor Chee, a Diné pianist and composer known for combining his classical piano training with his Native American heritage.

It’s “a space to stop and breathe and pay attention to those extra Diné voices,” Allen said.

In December, Allen said, artist Eric-Paul Riege will invite the public to take part in a long-running performance — an act that takes a long time, as a form of artistic expression.

“He’s a dynamic performance artist and he’s Diné himself, but he takes these material ideas, philosophies and practices in a totally interesting new direction,” Allen said.

The last part of the exhibition, one of the largest areas of the exhibition, is dedicated to the largest textiles in the exhibition.

“That’s really where I wanted to show the power of these weaves as far up the walls as possible,” Allen said. “I really tried to put the biggest weaves on this section. So when you are done with your journey, you end up entering this room. The visual power is undeniable.

She said “Color Riot” bolsters MAM’s Native American collection, created as the museum has worked to preserve and display Native American and American art for more than a century.

“As a curator, my big plan here is to facilitate the renovation of our new gallery with works from across Native American America. And we’re definitely going to build on what we’ve done here in terms of presenting next,” Allen said. “We are going to totally rethink the way Indigenous art has been presented here.”

Allen wants visitors to not only experience Navajo culture, but also come away with a powerful sense of the artistic sophistication of Navajo textile weavers.

“And [I’d like them to] understand the cultural continuity over time that these design ideas, which to our eyes might seem surprising as having taken place in the late 1800s, are still as relevant today – and that Diné culture and Diné resilience are integrated throughout the exhibition,” she said.

“Riot of Colors!” How Color Changed Navajo Textiles” is on display at the Montclair Art Museum until January 2.

“Riot of Colors!” How Color Changed Navajo Textiles showcases 70 vivid works of art from the 1800s to the present day. (COURTESY OF THE MUSÉE D’ART DE MONTCLAIR)
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Mildred D. Field