Today’s post comes from Sophie Asakura, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.
I am currently in Professor Molly McGlennen’s class “Native American Women” which has vastly expanded my thinking and opened a new perspective on the American experience. My academic experience, combined with my interest in visual culture, compelled me to write about an object from the Art Center’s Native American art collection, which has grown significantly over the past decade. Being a fiber fanatic (most especially wool) and having dabbled in weaving this summer, I decided that I would focus on this woven Navajo rug.
In 1992 the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center purchased a 20th-century Navajo Storm Pattern rug. This unattributed work is made of handspun native Churro wool dyed with modern chemical dyes. It is situated at a position of tension between Navajo tradition and adaptation to post-colonial life.
The Diné (Navajo people) believe that Spider Woman came to teach them to spin and weave on a loom which Spider Man taught them to build. Navajo weaving also has origins amongst the Pueblo people and Spanish colonizers. Traditionally, weaving is seen by the Diné as not only a viable source of commerce and trade, but an expression of proper feminine behavior and a celebration of the female intellect. Diné women learn this skill from older women in the community through observation. The successive passing down of weaving turns the creative act into an act of cultural preservation and a conversation with the weavers’ foremothers.
The Storm Rug pattern is associated in particular with the Western part of the Navajo Reservation in the 1920s. This pattern is from the Navajo weaving era known as the “Rug Period” (1900-1930) when weavers changed their products from blankets to rugs and decorative objects to suit the tourist market. Many various symbols and interpretations can be derived from the Storm Rug pattern, which is the only abstract Navajo design assigned meaning, although questions persist as to the origins of these interpretations. Generally, the central box is associated with the center of the world, a hogan (home), lake, or storm house. It is the anchor of the composition and can thus be read as a location of cultural weight and centrality. Projecting from this center box are four zig-zag lines, usually read as lightning, that strike the boxes in the four corners of the rug, which have been interpreted as the four houses of the wind. Abstract figures reside between the bolts of lightning and are thought to be interpretations of water bugs.
Through its mixture of traditional Navajo weaving techniques and designs and its adapted purpose and audience, this Storm Pattern rug embodies the cultural resilience of the Diné people to adjust to changing cultural situations. The rug keeps the tradition of Navajo weaving alive while entering into visual and economic conversation with changing times and outside communities.