Two Navajo artists weave new stories

Zefren-M, “House of Rain”, (in progress), based on an Ancestral Pueblo weaving pattern (photo Susannah Abbey/Hyperallergic)

SHIPROCK, NM – Prior to the 19th century, Navajo textiles were both decorative and utilitarian: cotton, dog hair, and later the wool of Churro sheep introduced by the Spaniards were used to weave blankets, dresses, belts, quivers of arrows and horse accessories. Anglo traders of the mid-19th century changed the way Navajo weaving was qualitatively understood and used by bringing rugs from the Middle East for weavers to recreate with local materials on their own vertical looms. What emerged was not quite Navajo, not quite Middle Eastern: angular versions of the more rounded Orient geometries of land and sky, hybrid symbology, and still with decorative borders. It was a style guaranteed to be salable to Victorian collectors under the influence of Orientalism. What the outside world sees as traditional Navajo weaving is actually a 150-year snapshot of the long socio-economic history of a people forced to turn a way of life into a commodity.

Two Navajo artists living in New Mexico who have broken away from this slice of weaving history go back and forward in time, through pre-European patterns and through the centuries towards contemporary self-expression. Ephraim Anderson, or Zefren-M as they like to call themselves, comes from a line of weavers whose techniques carefully developed within the family were passed down from mother to daughter. Because they were born (and presented as) male, Zefren-M’s grandmother did not, originally, consider them an appropriate recipient of this knowledge. “If I had worn a dress and acted like a girl, my grandmother probably would have taught me to weave,” they said.

Zefren-M with ‘Mother Earth and Father Sky Entwined’ in their home weaving studio (photo Susannah Abbey/Hyperallergic)

Therefore, Zefren-M is mostly self-taught, though they gathered valuable information early on from women they refer to as “Clan Grannies”. After studying in the cultural arts program at Diné College, they apprenticed with master weaver Roy Kady. A student of history and archeology, Zefren-M begins our conversation by discussing the migrations of the Athabaskan people and their diaspora across tribal boundaries, gender and balance in Navajo cosmology, symbols shared with world cultures whole, before passing to the Navajo weaving as a contemporary cultural practice.

In the stories of Zefren-M, which contain threads of archaeological history, folk tales and speculations, different cultures are also intertwined like Navajo Churro yarns in a reverse interlocking twill. Diné arts and crafts developed in the context of its neighbors, borrowing patterns and styles from the Puebloans as their people traded and intermarried. Zefren-M recently recreated these old models using photographs of fragments belonging to Ancestral Puebloans, such as the jagged spirals repeated with serrated edges in a textile entitled “House of Rain”.

“Knowledge must flow in all directions,” says Zefren-M. As required by art. In addition to their interest in past techniques, they recently produced a masterpiece of expression titled “Colors Can Fade: My Personal Journey of Overcoming Trauma and Grief”, which was created by blending primary colors to form new pictorial combinations.

Morris Muskett near his home outside of Gallup, New Mexico (photo Susannah Abbey/Hyperallergic)

Zefren-M identifies as gay and non-binary Navajo in Shiprock, a refugee from the Christian Reformed Church due to his sexuality. Using art to cope with this and other experiences, “Colors May Fade” was inspired by the pain of coming out, a slow and painful recovery from long-term COVID, and a difficult breakup. . “We are supposed to use art to improve ourselves as human beings and now I want my clients and people who see my art to know that I understand suffering and give them a little kick, a talk of encouragement; it’s always worth living,” says Zefren-M.

Morris Muskett prefers to work in miniature, a sort of necessity, as a life-size tapestry can take six months to a year to complete, a difficult commitment to make while teaching full-time at Gallup High School and caring for his parents. aged. Such weavings, in the end, cost tens of thousands of dollars and are difficult to sell. In order to make his art accessible, Muskett spent three or four days creating a four by five inch “sampler” or “study”; the small size makes each piece more affordable. It uses bold colors unlike the well-known nearby Two Gray Hills textiles which are made of undyed grays, off-whites and browns.

Morris Muskett, selected miniatures, churro wool, approximately 4 x 5 inches each (photo Susannah Abbey/Hyperallergic)

Muskett trained as a civil engineer and still enjoys understanding the mechanics and chemistry of his materials and equipment. He learned to weave by experimentation, built his own looms, and developed his own mordant to set the dye. He dyes his materials with local plants and lichen, which he prefers not to name specifically because, he says, people have come to Navajo lands and taken plants without permission and without concern for the perpetuation of the land. ‘species. In the current mega-drought of the Southwest, all plants growing in New Mexico’s vulnerable desert must be harvested wisely, the land treated with respect.

In 2002, Muskett received a fellowship from the National Museum of Indian Arts and traveled to New York and Washington, D.C. to research the collections of ancient textiles from the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, and mainland tribes. . This study developed his sense of historical contiguity. Like Zefren-M, Muskett explores ancient diamond twill weaving techniques using primarily Churro wool, but he has also experimented with camel hair, linen and silk. He even used a species of native Peruvian cotton that was nearly eradicated to clear land for cash crops in the 1970s, but now enjoys legal protections as part of the country’s ethnic and cultural heritage. An ancient cloth made from dog hair was found in caves west of her home outside of Gallup, New Mexico. One day he might also try this material.

Morris Muskett hand spins churro wool outside his home near Gallup, New Mexico. (photo Susannah Abbey/Hyperallergic)

Ancient Navajo and Puebloan textiles were made to be worn, not hung flat on a wall, Muskett says. “Traders took a three-dimensional art form and made it two-dimensional.” Traders still value easily recognizable styles like Ganado, Two Gray Hills, and the ever-popular pictorial, and tend to pass only a fraction of the financial value of textiles to artists. Therefore, Zefren-M and Muskett prefer to work with their own network of collectors who appreciate the skill and historical significance of what they do, and with markets such as the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market and the Southwest Association. for Indian Arts. (SWAIA) Indian market in Santa Fe, where people can closely examine and smell the fabric. Seeing the fabrics worn, used and enjoyed is a more direct way to experience them as integral to Navajo life and history.

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