Skip to main content

Textile historian Newland spotlights Navajo culture, artistry

July 06, 2009

A new Navajo textiles exhibit at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History has taken shape under the guidance of Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology exhibit developer Judy Newland. The exhibit, which opened May 29 and runs until May 30, 2010, will feature 90 pieces from the 20th century or later.

A tapestry weaver with over 30 years’ experience and a museum anthropologist, Newland believes textiles tell stories that reflect the life and culture of the weavers, and are often mirrors of shifting traditions and landscapes.

This is particularly evident in Navajo weaving, one of Newland’s areas of special interest. During her graduate studies at the University of ColoradoBoulder, Newland had the opportunity to learn from several Navajo teachers and develop skills on the Navajo hip spindle and loom. In the years since, she has earned a reputation as a respected textile historian.

Considering her background, it is not surprising that Newland was recently invited by the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History to act as guest curator for an exhibit of notable Navajo textiles.

“Navajo Weaving: Diamonds, Dreams, Landscapes” is a yearlong exhibit that will unfold in three phases and feature objects from the university’s Joe Ben Wheat Southwestern Textile Collection. Steve Lekson, the Colorado museum’s anthropology curator, calls the assemblage of over 800 historically and culturally significant pieces “one of the best collections of textiles anywhere.”

“Navajo Weaving: Diamonds, Dreams, Landscapes” will be the first major exhibit from the collection in nearly 20 years. Each phase will present around 30 textiles, and many of the pieces will be on public display for the first time.

Newland was first approached about curating the exhibit in summer 2008. Museum administrators asked her to design a yearlong showcase illustrating the depth of the collection and using contemporary pieces instead of the older, cultural works that had been displayed several times.

“Textiles cannot be displayed for longer than four months at a time, or you run the risk of light damage,” Newland explains. “So, it seemed logical to have a changing exhibit that included three different rotations. This also allows more of the collection to be viewed publicly and gives visitors to Boulder the opportunity to see two different exhibits on two different days if they time their visit around the end of one rotation and the beginning of the next.”

Choosing the items for each part of the cycle was a challenge for Newland, who did not have a database of images to consult and had to work from a distance except for three visits to Colorado. “I had to literally pull the textiles and look at each one of them. I must have looked at about 100 pieces during that first trip. It was enjoyable but a lot of work, and I needed help deciding how to theme the rotations.”  

So, Newland called on a long-time friend – international printmaker and University of Colorado associate professor of art Melanie Yazzie – to help shape the exhibit. After spending countless hours together looking at the textiles and considering the weavers and their histories, they decided to divide the textiles into three themed groups for revolving display.

The first phase, in place until October 1, is “Diamonds and Beyond,” which focuses on the common diamond motif found in Navajo weavings. Yei rugs and pictorial works provided the inspirations for the second iteration, “Dreams, Schemes and Stories,” beginning October 2 and featuring narrative and image-based weavings that highlight the stories of Navajo weavers and the Diné – the Navajo people. The third and final iteration – “Landscapes,” opening February 5, 2010 – emphasizes the Southwestern landscape that has influenced every aspect of Diné life and remains an integral part of the Navajo people.

Each exhibit phase is augmented by programming, like lectures; movies featuring or created by Native Americans; and demonstrations and workshops. And complementing the entire exhibit is “Weaving Memory: Monotypes by Melanie Yazzie.” This group of prints inspired by the Joe Ben Wheat Collection and Yazzie’s Navajo weaver grandmother, Thelma Baldwin, will occupy the museum’s Second Floor Gallery until May 30, 2010.

If forced to pick a favorite piece from the exhibit, Newland would choose an all-white cashmere sash woven by contemporary artist Morris Muskett, whom she met in Peru a few years ago. She is impressed by the versatility and uniqueness of his work and has included at least one of his textiles in each of the exhibit’s rotations. Newland states, “One of the goals I had in designing this exhibit was to show the world that the Navajo people are alive and well and that a lot of amazing weaving is still going on. I think Morris Muskett demonstrates that beautifully.”

Putting textiles into context in her own life, Newland says, “I use textiles to gain an understanding of cultures worldwide and have applied this to my teaching and my own weaving.” She recently completed a vibrant piece that is an amalgam of cultural inspirations: a tapestry titled “Cultural Stratigraphy” based on the Amish quilt pattern known as Chinese Coins. Dedicated to the Navajo weavers and artists Newland calls friends, the tapestry uses black wool from Burnham’s Trading Post and multicolored threads dyed using plants gathered around the mesas of the Window Rock area. All were spun on a Navajo hip spindle. The tapestry serves as a new teaching tool for her classes.

In addition to curating museum exhibits, Newland teaches exhibit design and development in the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change’s museum anthropology program. This unique master’s program in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences explores fundamental questions about the role of museums in society and the ways they produce knowledge. Next up for her is a six-week visit to Peru, where she will be analyzing archaeological textiles as part of a transdisciplinary project that uses the humanities and social, life and physical sciences to explore the construction of ancient Andean identity. She will also be traveling to Colorado to host the openings of Navajo Weaving’s last two stages.

For more information on “Navajo Weaving: Diamonds, Dreams, Landscapes” and linked events, visit the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History online at

For information on the ASU Museum of Anthropology, visit or call 480-965-6224. The museum is open by appointment throughout the summer. “Past Forms” – an exhibit of archaeological and historical ceramic pieces presented by Newland’s museum anthropology graduate students – runs through August 10.