Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Navajo Textiles: Autonomy and the Marketplace

             Consumers expect a certain level of honesty and frankness from retailers and dealers when they enter the marketplace to search for an item to purchase.  However, many uninformed buyers do not comprehend the forces behind the quality control and the labeling of merchandise.  For example, what exactly is a Navajo rug described as being a Classical revival or a Newlands Rug and how important is the identity of the weaver to the valuation of a weaving?  These labels affixed to past and contemporary Navajo weavings lend to the complicated dichotomy of the weaver-market relationship.  By tracing the history of Navajo relations with outside markets, it becomes evident that weavers have remained autonomous despite centuries of influence and interaction with foreigners.  The incorporation of new colors, materials, and patterns and re-interpretation of existing styles attest to the fact that Navajo weavers have consistently maintained traditions of adaptation and integration, while negotiating the marketplace, and subsequently retaining their autonomy.  In interviewing contemporary Navajo weavers of the New Lands style, I explore another method of analysis that incorporates first-hand accounts of the art form today and how weavers view their interactions with the marketplace.
Once leaving the hands and looms of their creation, however, the textiles are brought to the art or craft market where, I argue, this autonomy is lost.  The art market, which operates under the guise of multicultural liberalism, removes the associations of autonomy and replaces them with a broader idea of “Indianness.”  Incorporating the indigenous theory of Jodi A. Bird, this label of “Indianness” only acts in reaffirming colonial injuries and allows for United States Empire to persist over Native American communities.  The Navajo textiles, thus, operate as tools for the persistence of oppression despite the art market’s attempt to incorporate the items into a multicultural and liberal institution. 
            A recent trend in the art world is to view Native American objects as art as opposed to artifact or craft.  Valuing the aesthetic qualities of Native American art rather than its cultural elements has the ability to finally break from the idea of Native American art as artifact and not as art.  A change in valuation such as this would assist in removing the “Indianness” label of Navajo textiles which the marketplace affixes.
The issues raised in this essay determine that the undervaluation of an art form and the undermining of its artist are at stake.  This essay acts as a call to attention with how institutions, retailers, and academics approach Navajo textiles in order that negative connotations and oppressive labeling may be shed.  Devoid of this information, the art world risks removing itself from the dialogue of comprehension in which it engages with Navajo arts and aesthetics.  In effect, the publication of this essay will demonstrate the necessity for an engagement of erudition and cultural understanding in order to transform the relationship between Navajo weavers and other Native American artists and the art markets in which they participate.  This research will inform scholars to remain cautious in their future explorations of the way Native American art is viewed by outsiders and to approach the subject with a multidisciplinary methodology. 
Mary Yazzie. New Lands Rug. Sanders, Arizona, 38"x 54".

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