A story of history, cultural exchange and artistic expression is chronicled in “Southwest Weavings: 800 Years of Artistic Exchange,” one of the newest exhibitions at the Saint Louis Art Museum.
The exhibition, which debuted Dec. 14, features a display of 13 textiles from the Southwest region of the United States, including a piece that dates back as far as A.D. 1200. The pieces – all of which were created by indigenous Diné (Navajo) and native Puebloan weavers, as well as Spanish colonial weavers – are highlights from a larger collection of 55 pieces gifted to the museum by Paul and Elissa Cahn in 2017.
“A primary role of the museum is to enable visitors to encounter excellent works of art, and that’s exactly what this exhibition does,” says curator Alexander Brier Marr, who serves as assistant curator for Native American art.
“We often think of the Southwest as being remote from the U.S. and from Mexico,” he says. “But the exhibition bears out that there have been centuries of artistic exchange connecting weavers to textile development around the world.”
The story is remarkable. What was originally created for practical purposes – large blankets wrapped around the body – became world-famous markers of style and cross-cultural interaction. To illustrate just how connected the native artists were, Marr points out that synthetic dyes were invented in England in the late 1850s, only to appear in use by native weavers within less than a decade of that development.
“By early 19th century, Navajo weavers were renowned for their textiles,” he says. “Later weavings from 1875 and on have a different function, when large numbers of Americans start traveling through the Southwest and a transition begins to take place, moving away from garments for the body to textiles for the home.”
Museum visitors might be familiar with the blanket designs, which are made of wool and colored with various dyes. Patterns on any given textile can feature stripes, diamonds, triangles and chevrons, with colors ranging from earthy browns, whites and blacks to more eye-popping reds and soft blues. Regardless, there’s no question about their artistic appeal.
“The works are very clear demonstrations of sophisticated aesthetic thinking,” Marr says.
The history of the region can even be traced through these pieces. The arrival of Spanish colonists in the 16th century saw the introduction of sheep as livestock to the indigenous population – who then used the wool for the blankets – while American westward expansion in the 1800s brought new buyers and collectors to the region. Soon thereafter, the early years of the Navajo reservation saw an explosion of bold experimentation in designs.
“It’s important to tell a story of exchange in the Southwest because it is part of our country, and it’s played a central role in American history,” Marr says. “Indigenous peoples are part of our contemporary society.”
The entire exhibition process, from the initial gift to curating the exhibition for public display, demonstrates the museum’s ongoing commitment to expanding its native art collection, which has grown significantly in the previous decade.
“I’ve been here three years, two of which have been focused on Southwest weaving,” Marr says. “It’s a wonderful reflection of the work of the past three years for the institution and myself. It’s been a fantastic team effort.”
What the exhibition ultimately comes down to, however, is a focus on the pieces themselves, how they represent the region from which they originate and the story that they tell about the individuals who crafted them. All of the works include basic details such as materials, dimensions, year made and extended labels with more detailed information and separate text panels detailing the larger themes of the show. As with any visual art, it’s vital for people to see the pieces for themselves.
“We can talk about the material all day, but the works do stand on their own,” Marr says.
“Southwest Weavings” is a free exhibition that runs through May 5 in Gallery 100. The Saint Louis Art Museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, St. Louis, 314-721-0072, slam.org