Barnes Foundation shows off its collection of Native art for first time

When Tahnibaa Naataanii greets someone she does not know, she centers it all by stating who she is.

“I am from the Many Hogan clan” she says. “My father’s are the Coyote Pass clan. My maternal grandfather is the Mexican Clan, and my paternal grandfather’s is the Steep Rock clan. My late father, Leo Natani, taught me to always acknowledge your mother, father, and grandfather’s clan, when you speak to a community, whether you’re in Navajo country or away.”

Naatanii is guided by her “ancestral home” south of Shiprock, NM Life itself is tradition, bundled in time, and forward carried from one generation to the next

“I am a traditional Navajo weaver,” she says.

“I create weaving using my ancestors’ techniques, the vertical, upright loom, and using the Navajo spindle to create fibre. I’m a rancher. I also have Navajo-Churro sheep that I ranch and I’m also a mother. I have an 18-year-old daughter. I’m also a grandmother. So that’s how I come to this project.”

The “project” is the first exhibition in Barnes Foundation history highlighting the collection of Native art built by Dr. Albert Barnes from 1929 to about 1931.

In addition to its own holdings, the Barnes will be showingcasing the artwork of 27 contemporary Native artists, such as Naataanii, and a handful of much older Native objects from the Penn Museum.

“Water, Wind, Breath: Southwest Native Art in Community” opens at the Barnes Feb. 20 for a run through May 15.

“This is the first show of our centennial year,” said Barnes associate curator Cindy Kang. “For us, this is pretty significant because it’s a show that both looks retrospectively back on our past and the formation of our collections and history of the Barnes, while also looking towards the future; This is the kind of show and these are the kinds of stories that we would like to tell in our exhibition program.”

The collection of 239 objects, encompassing Pueblo and Navajo pottery, textiles, and jewelry, is not well known, despite the fact that Barnes installed the textiles largely on the second floor of his Merion gallery where they eventually kept watch over the Matisse mural, The Dancecommissioned by Barnes.

(The jewelry and at least one example of pottery became part of Barnes’ various ensembles in the galleries.)

In a sense the collection was hidden in plain sight.

“Nobody knows about it, right?” Kang said. “Nobody connects it to the Barnes. It’s an incredibly high quality and rich collection. Narrow in it’s focus, but very rich.”

It was past time, she said, to study the collection properly, catalog it, and to demonstrate “that these traditions are still relevant to Native artists practicing today. We really wanted to emphasize that these are living traditions,” Kang said.

Exhibition co-curator Tony Chavarria (of Santa Clara Pueblo), curator of ethnology at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, said there are obvious areas of continuity between work Native artists are creating now and the work of artists past. Materials favored in the past, such as clay, jewelry, textiles, are still favored. Design and color are still critical to Native artists, although “you’ll definitely be able to see, with the contemporary works, there are differences.”

Lucy Fowler Williams, associate curator-in-charge and senior keeper of American collections at the Penn Museum, and exhibition co-curator, said that she and Charvarria “sought out artists whose work is really substantively engaging with the community and with the historical traditions .”

This focus helps to demonstrate that the making of the textiles and the jewelry and ceramics are “integrally and substantively important for both the spiritual and physical aspects well being of the communities and the people,” she says. “The traditions are so deeply rooted in the history and origin stories of these communities that their continued making is really of importance, vitally important to the communities.”

Barnes was no expert in Navajo culture when he and his wife stayed with arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and her husband in Taos, NM in 1929. But what Barnes may have lacked in expertise, he made up for with an enthusiastic response to the Native art and its social and spiritual significance.

Barnes “fell in love” with the culture and art of the Southwest, said Williams, and “over a short period of two years, he acquired a very beautiful and very strong collection” of Native artworks. On one of the trips, in 1931, he ventured to the San Ildefonso Pueblo for the winter Deer Dance in January, she said, and “was blown away by the community, the focus on the ritual, which he writes to Matisse about, and he just responded to the color and the song and the beauty and the community coming together in this religious drama of the Deer Dance and the celebration to honor and thank the deer.”

To Matisse, who was then painting The DanceBarnes described the “deep meaning” and “significance” of the art to the community as a whole, which remains very much the case today.

“Navajo weaving is like a prayer, it is part of our philosophy of walking in beauty,” Naatannii says. “My weaving is a meditative, powerful process that helps me live in balance.”

It also has the practical importance of providing income, she says, but the deep significance and power comes from the connection art making maintains with the land and with the sky, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

A weaver draws strength from such connections, Naatanni says. Weaving, in fact, “speaks” to her, as she works in the presence of the Navajo creation figures.

“I don’t hold 100% of this power as a weaver,” she says. “I share it with you, Spider Woman and Spider Man. I’m your soldier. I weave. I’m your worker, I weave with your guidance. And I follow that.”

Sometimes, she allows, Naatannii does not listen to the art as it speaks. She does not give herself over to the coaxing and urgings of Spider Woman. When that happens, what she creates “isn’t pleasing to me at times.” But when she listens, the art takes over and reveals itself.

“Navajo weaving is right now in an exciting dynamic time,” she says. “There’s a liberation happening, a creative liberation happening because a lot of the weavers are not weaving what the trading post requested years ago. There’s a community of Navajo weavers that is exploring with patterns.”

Dancing Fire is among the works Naatannii has in the exhibition.

“That is a representation of when COVID-19 hits the Navajo Nation,” she says. “As you know, the southwest got hit hard. And Dancing Fire is a representation of chaotic beauty.”

It was, she says, “so chaotic, crazy.” People were taking their lives into their hands simply to go to the post office.

“I was barely able to calm down, calm myself and begin my weaving, and that’s what was created, Dancing Fire.,” she says “So we look at our art as spiritual. This is the way it takes care of us. I do believe that a greater spiritual awakening is happening. And those artworks [in the Barnes Collection] are needing their descendants to come forth.”

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