The Barnes Foundation presents its Indigenous art collection for the first time

When Tahnibaa Naataanii greets someone she doesn’t know, she centers it all by stating who she is.

“I’m from the Many Hogan clan,” she said. “My father is from the Coyote Pass clan. My maternal grandfather is from the Mexican clan and my paternal grandfather is from the Steep Rock clan. My late father, Leo Natani, taught me to always recognize your mother’s, father’s, and grandfather’s clan when speaking to a community, whether you are in Navajo country or elsewhere.

Naatanii is guided by her “ancestral home” south of Shiprock, NM Life itself is a tradition, packaged in time and passed down from generation to generation

“I’m a traditional Navajo weaver,” she says.

“I create the weaving using the techniques of my ancestors, the up and down loom, and using the Navajo spindle to create the fiber. I am a breeder. I also have Navajo-Churro sheep that I raise and am also a mother. I have an 18 year old daughter. I am also a grandmother. That’s how I came to this project.

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

In addition to its own collections, the Barnes will feature the works of 27 contemporary Indigenous artists, such as Naataanii, and a handful of much older Indigenous artifacts from the Penn Museum.

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

“This is the first exhibit of our centennial,” said Barnes Associate Curator Cindy Kang. “For us, it’s quite important because it’s a show that looks both at our past and at the formation of our collections and the history of Barnes, while looking towards the future; that’s the kind of show and that’s the kind 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 watched Matisse’s mural. Dancecommissioned by Barnes.

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

In a sense, the collection was hidden in plain sight.

“Nobody knows, do they?” Kang said. “No one connects him to the Barnes. It is an incredibly rich and high quality collection. Narrow in its orientation, but very rich.

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

Exhibit co-curator Tony Chavarria (of Santa Clara Pueblo), curator of ethnology at the Santa Fe Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, said there are obvious areas of continuity between the work that Aboriginal artists are creating today and the work of artists from the past. Materials favored in the past, such as clay, jewelry, textiles, are still favored. Design and color are always essential for Aboriginal artists, although “you will certainly be able to see, with contemporary works, that there are differences”.

Lucy Fowler Williams, associate curator in charge and senior custodian of the American collections at the Penn Museum, and co-curator of the exhibition, said she and Charvarria “are looking for artists whose work really engages in a substantive way with the community and with historical traditions.”

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

Barnes was no expert on 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 it with an enthusiastic response to native art. and its social and spiritual significance.

Barnes “fell in love” with Southwestern culture and art, Williams said, and “over a short period of two years acquired a very fine, very strong collection” of artwork indigenous. On one of the trips, in 1931, he ventured to San Ildefonso Pueblo for the winter deer dance in January, she said, and “was blown away by the community, the emphasis about the ritual, of which he writes to Matisse, and he just responded to the color and the song and the beauty and the community that come together in this religious drama of the stag dance and the celebration to honor and thank the stag.

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

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

It also has the practical importance of providing income, she says, but the deeper meaning and power comes from the connection artistic creation has with the earth and with the sky, Mother Earth and Father Sky.

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

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

Sometimes, she admits, Naatannii doesn’t listen to art as it speaks. She doesn’t indulge in Spider Woman’s cajoling and urging. When this happens, what she creates “sometimes doesn’t please me”. But listening, art takes over and reveals itself.

“Navajo weaving is currently in an exciting dynamic time,” she says. “There’s a release happening, a creative release happening because a lot of the weavers aren’t weaving what the trading post asked for years ago. There is a community of Navajo weavers who explore the patterns. »

dancing fire is one of the works that Naatannii presents in the exhibition.

“It’s a representation of when COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation,” she says. “As you know, the southwest has been hit hard. And dancing fire is a representation of chaotic beauty.

It was, she said, “so chaotic, crazy.” People took their lives into their own hands just to get to the post office.

“I was barely able to calm down, calm down and start my weaving, and that’s what was created, dancing fire.,” she said, “So we see our art as spiritual. This is how he takes care of us. I believe a greater spiritual awakening is taking place. And these works [in the Barnes Collection] need their descendants to come out.

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