Weaving isn’t only women’s work, exhibition shows

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DENVER – A recent exhibition at the University of Denver shattered some common notions about art and its creation as an activity removed from daily life, as pretty much gender-determined, and as museum-defined.

As its name implies, “Chant of the Male Spider – A Holistic Journey with Diné Weaver Roy Kady,” reiterated the place male weavers, although fewer in number, have occupied in the tradition of Navajo craft customarily carried out by women.

Kady, a chapter house president at Teec Nos Pos near the Four Corners junction of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, is a fourth generation master weaver who learned the art from his mother.

“I wanted to help correct the common misconception that only women weave. There aren’t as many male weavers, but they’re out there,” said Teresa Montoya, Diné, originally from Window Rock, Ariz., who is working on a master’s degree in anthropology and museum installation at DU.

Montoya found that Kady’s work was included in two earlier exhibitions, one at the Santa Fe Museum of Arts and Crafts in 2000-01 and another at the Navajo Nation Museum in 2004-05, and Kady’s work was shown in both of them. Another was Hosteen Klah, a medicine man as well as a weaver a century ago, whose incorporation of spiritual elements remains controversial today among some Navajo traditionalists.

“The Diné language does not contain a word for ‘art’ or for ‘religion.’ In traditional Navajo ways, it’s how you live, and they’re not divided.” – Teresa Montoya, Diné, co-curator of “Chant of the Male Spider – A Holistic Journey with Diné Weaver Roy Kady”

Throughout Kady’s exhibit were not only rugs in subtle shades produced by natural dyes, but pots of the dye itself, plants from which the dye was produced; thick hanks of wool; a wedding dress – a “rug dress” – Kady created for his niece’s wedding; a horse’s rope, blanket and bridle set; weaving implements used by his mother and grandmother, and a rug his mother wove in a Teec Nos Pos zigzag pattern.

“He is a weaver in a more traditional way as existed before the introduction of trading posts,” Montoya said. “His is more for utilitarian purposes.”

While traders tended to stress specific designs they wanted weavers to produce – Two Gray Hills, for example – Kady’s collection included a bridle, woven rope, saddle blanket, and other equine items.

“The Diné language does not contain a word for ‘art’ or for ‘religion,’” she said. “In traditional Navajo ways, it’s how you live, and they’re not divided,” so Kady decided to include plants, animal items, and weaving in the exhibit in “trying to show the interconnectedness of the three.”

“To him, weaving isn’t an art, per se – it’s a way of life. He cares for his own flock of churro lambs.” She pointed out that Freddie Bitsoie, a professional Diné chef who also trained as an anthropologist, prepared local food for the exhibition’s opening. “It’s always a holistic experience – the sheep you’re eating is connected to the weavings which in turn are connected to plants.”

Montoya worked on the April exhibit with Kady, stressing that it was “a collaboration” – nothing less.

“This is his ideas,” she said. “I just organize his thoughts. I told him, ‘I’m just facilitating your ideas.’” In working on the exhibit, Montoya said she learned more about her own culture as she pointed out the plants used to dye yarn – prickly pear for rose, black walnut for brown, indigo for blue, and a different root used for dark green.

Kady decided on the theme, the objects selected, the way they were displayed, the program’s text, and other things, she said. “I was very much only a collaborator.”

She feels many museum exhibitions are museum-centric, and “museums work with Native people, but the level of input varies.” Here, Kady was “literally a co-curator,” she said.

“Native people and museums that hold our cultural objects have recently taken a more active role in integrating our traditions and perspectives into exhibitions,” notes one of their prepared statements. “Following this precedent, the intention of this exhibit (is) to depict the holistic process of Diné weaving from a Diné weaver’s perspective.”

The exhibition was sponsored by DU’s Anthropology Department, Center for Multicultural Excellence, Native American Alumni and Native Student Alliance, and Denver Museum of Nature & Science.