Shaped by the Loom: Weaving Worlds in the American Southwest will be the first to showcase the American Museum of Natural History’s (AMNH) collection of Indigenous textiles from the greater American Southwest.

By exploring the various modes and contexts of intercultural influence, adaptation, and exchange in the region, this groundbreaking exhibition examines the trans-historical conditions for change in this particular medium, and how it is intertwined with materials, objects, and social practices that articulate both cultural and regional identities. While it focuses on Navajo textiles, comparisons are made with Pueblo and Hispanic weaving traditions to show regional variation in—and transmission of—motifs, materials, techniques, and technologies. Contemporary works by Native artists and makers will express the cultural legacy and continued vibrancy of the historical works.

To understand Navajo weaving, one must engage with the network of relationships that sustains a larger ecosystem of craft production in the American Southwest. It begins with the sheep, the seasonal cycles that guide the harvesting of dye plants, the cosmologies that inform a weaver’s work, and the songs, stories, and prayers that are woven into every rug. With this in mind, this exhibition aims to re-center Indigenous aesthetics and ways of knowing in craft production, highlighting the localized knowledge systems that guide the process behind the product. Rather than reifying the “object,” it will foreground the active and generative process that both shapes and animates the creation of this art form. Just as the Navajo language is powerfully verb-oriented, weaving metaphors are equally action-oriented, reflecting the connection between mind, body, and material inherent to the weaving process.

Shaped by the Loom will bring into dialogue multiple aspects of craft process, including the tangible and the intangible, the visual and the tacit. It will strive to deformalize Navajo weaving to shift our analysis away from the development of periods, designs, and styles toward an alternative history—one that emphasizes Native agency in the history of textile production. It takes many voices to tell this story, bringing different cultures of knowledge production into conversation and highlighting the diversity of perspectives embedded within these narratives. Moreover, it prompts us to ask ourselves how analyses of historical materials might be read through the lens of Indigenous values and production practices. Through innovative display strategies, dye and fiber analysis, and a variety of media, this exhibition and its accompanying book will advance and enrich discourses relating to Native American textile art and issues of cultural preservation and heritage.

A Focus Project curated by Hadley Jensen, BGC/AMNH Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology, Bard Graduate Center, in consultation with Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas. Focus Projects are part of an innovative program organized and led by faculty members or postdoctoral fellows through seminars and workshops that culminate in small-scale, academically rigorous exhibitions.

Support for Shaped by the Loom: Weaving Worlds in the American Southwest has been provided by donors to Bard Graduate Center.

Image Credit: William Pennington or Lisle Updike, Navajo Shepherdess, 1920–25. Photograph. Published in Glass Plates & Wagon Ruts: Images of the Southwest by Lisle Updike and William Pennington. Courtesy of Jackson Clark, Toh-Atin Gallery, Durango, CO.