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Begay family sheep ranch, Burnham, New Mexico. Photograph by Howard Rowe.
Marie Begay at her loom. Photograph by Howard Rowe.
Hadley Jensen at Canyon de Chelly. Photo by Jesse Merandy. October 2021.

In 2011, Hadley Jensen began pursuing a master’s degree at Bard Graduate Center (BGC). Little did she know that this was the beginning of a ten-year academic journey within the walls of West 86th Street. As an MA student, she became interested in Indigenous art and material culture while taking classes with Aaron Glass, and she returned to pursue this subject as a PhD candidate in 2014. Her dissertation, advised by Glass, combined her interests in visual anthropology, material culture, craft history and theory, and Native American art. After finishing her PhD in 2018, she became the BGC/American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology, giving her the opportunity to work with AMNH’s historic collection of over three hundred Indigenous textiles from the American Southwest, most of which have never been seen by the public.

For her Focus Project—a BGC initiative in which professors and postdoctoral fellows teach classes related to their research and invite students to help develop this material into an exhibition—Jensen began planning Shaped by the Loom: Weaving Worlds in the American Southwest, a show that would display this collection for the first time in the BGC Gallery. Due to the pandemic, the project morphed into a digital exhibition, scheduled to launch in March 2022. Guided by her collaboration and consultation with fifth-generation Diné* tapestry weavers Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas, as well as other Indigenous artists, it will focus on the weaving processes and knowledge systems used to create these textiles, reflecting weavers’ relationships to their environment, as well as Diné cosmologies and cultural frameworks.

Jensen reflected, “Teaching has been a really generative part of the curatorial process. And that’s something that feels specific to BGC.” In the first course she taught in spring 2020, “Interlaced Traditions: Indigenous Textiles of the American Southwest,” students developed a digital interactive for the gallery, laying out the exhibition themes in the format of a Navajo* dye chart. Topics and themes of student research included homeland and cosmology; traditional ecological knowledge; dyeing and coloring; techniques and technologies; women, weaving, and tradition; and mind, body, and material. The second class, co-taught with Aaron Glass in spring 2021, was titled “Objects of Colonial Encounter: Native Arts of the Southwest and Northwest Coast.” In this course, each student selected a theme to focus on, as well as three items from the AMNH collection to research and place in dialogue with a contemporary piece or artist / maker.

This was not only Jensen’s first time teaching, but also her first experience translating an exhibition into a large-scale digital project—a challenge that proved to be fruitful. The dye chart framework that students created for the digital interactive became the interface for the website’s landing page, which will also feature the exhibition interpretation students wrote. Furthermore, the virtual format allows for more materials and media to be included. Jensen noted,
Having to move onto a digital platform has really given us the opportunity to incorporate a diversity of perspectives in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the gallery space. You’re limited by gallery walls, so we kept having to make cuts from the checklist, and now we’re somewhat limitless. I think we also have the opportunity to incorporate a lot of rich and immersive multimedia content—interviews with artists, photos, film clips. It’s become a much more expansive project.
Instead of experiencing a gallery environment, site visitors will feel as though they have been transported to the Navajo Nation. Thanks to funding from NYU-Gallatin’s WetLab, this collaborative initiative showcases photographs taken by Diné photographer and curator Rapheal Begay, combined with 360-degree panoramic views and audio field recordings of selected sites, to situate the viewer within this landscape. The exhibition will also have a longer life online and will be accessible to a greater number of people, including contemporary Native artists and descendant communities who may not be able to travel to New York.

The subject of this exhibition continues to inspire new research and conversations. Juliana Fagua Arias (MA ‘21) presented a paper at the Student Research Forum on indigo that was connected to work she did for Jensen’s courses. Jensen advised those students presenting and said, “It was a gift for me to be involved because they’re just so smart and creative, so I definitely learned from them too.” Fagua Arias and Jessie Young (MA ‘21), who also took both of Jensen’s classes, have been selected to produce the next Fields of the Future podcast series, which will focus on topics and themes related to Shaped by the Loom. Young said, “Hadley has been so supportive in the Fields of the Future project, connecting us with artists and scholars to interview.”

Jensen’s research has also led to her involvement in an exciting project with the Department of Textile Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Toh-Atin Gallery in Durango, CO. After meeting textile conservator Alexandra Barlow at a BGC exhibition opening in 2014, Jensen visited the Met’s textile conservation lab, which includes a dye facility and an archive of global textiles, fibers, and implements for textile production. Jensen and Barlow began discussing how they could add to the reference archive, proposing the addition of materials used by contemporary Diné weavers. After getting the green light and receiving funding through the Midori Sato Fund, Jensen and Barlow invited approximately fifty Diné weavers to submit dye and fiber samples and compensated them for their contributions. So far, they have received a mix of natural and synthetic materials, including wool passed down through generations of weavers, raw roving from trading posts, yarn samples used for warp and weft, and dried dye plants. These samples will be permanently archived in the Textile Conservation Department, with each participant’s name, and will eventually be made available online. They will also be compared with fiber samples from the Met’s existing collection of Diné weavings in the American Wing, using fiber microscopy. In the future, Jensen and Barlow hope to be able to conduct interviews with the weavers who have participated in the project.

All of the work Jensen has done is a continuation of the path she forged ten years ago at the BGC, and that she continues today as a research fellow in Southwest Modernism at the Lunder Institute for American Art (2021–22) and a research associate in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History.

* “Diné,” meaning “the people,” is the name that Navajo use to refer to themselves and their culture in their own language (according to Rapheal Begay, Diné has more agency in reference to culture, language, and the people). We have chosen to use “Diné” rather than “Navajo” throughout this article, except in terms, such as “Navajo Nation,” that the Navajo Nation Council voted to keep in 2017, and “Navajo dye chart,” which is the commonly understood name for such an object.

* Jensen uses the terms “Navajo” and “Diné” interchangeably in her work, following local usage and Jennifer Denetdale’s work in Reclaiming Diné History. However, she notes that the use of the emic Diné often indexes a more political stance.