Weaving a Story

The Colorado History Museum's major exhibition this season is Spirit of Spider Woman, an intelligent and elegantly presented examination of Navajo weaving that's been two years in the making. But don't expect the dry, straightforward approach that is typical of the CHM. Instead, like the exhibit's catchy title, Spider Woman is likely to ensnare viewers with its dazzling content.

Spider Woman was organized by Carolyn McArthur, an assistant curator of material culture at the CHM. This show is McArthur's first chance to direct and curate a major exhibit, and she says she wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity to dare to be different. As a result, Spider Woman is as much an art exhibit as it is a display of historical artifacts. "I wanted to do something that diverged from the exhibits here at the museum in the past," McArthur says. "Previously, shows here were 'object dense,' and I wanted to create instead a different way of seeing the objects, of conveying the visual information they contain atmospherically, to make the space more contemplative."

McArthur's approach involves galleries installed with a relatively few number of objects that have been aesthetically and strategically arranged under dim lights, not unlike the way it's long been done by the Denver Art Museum's native arts department head, Nancy Blomberg ("Nancy has been an inspiration," notes McArthur). As a result of Blomberg's influence, Spider Woman at the CHM makes an interesting and appropriate chaser to the DAM's Inventing the Southwest exhibit presented this winter. And like that show, Spider Woman explores not just the history of American Indian art, in particular weaving, but its social role and continuing influence as well.

According to McArthur, the relationship between the DAM's recent show and Spider Woman was wholly intentional, and the two institutions scheduled them in quick succession as an act of collaboration (Spider Woman opened before Inventing the Southwest closed.) "We haven't helped one another in the past as much as one might wish," McArthur says. But that all changed, as she points out, with the mammoth precedent-setting Real West show that was mounted in 1997.

That critically acclaimed blockbuster exhibit, the brainchild of Andy Masich, former vice president of the Colorado Historical Society, was held jointly by the DAM, the CHM and the Denver Public Library. Real West was the first time the three cultural heavyweights that line the south side of the Civic Center had ever cooperated on anything--which is pretty astounding, since each was founded more than a century ago, and while they've been lined up in a row only for the last few decades, they've always been within walking distance of one another. Their first attempt at working together, Real West was a rousing success, with the nearly 100,000 visitors making it one of the best attended exhibitions ever held in Denver. Real West also wound up serving as a greenhouse for subsequent exhibits at both the DAM and the CHM (if not the DPL), with Spider Woman being the latest to have sprouted.

For Spider Woman, McArthur assembled a team that involved several CHM staffers, including, among others, Judy Steiner, an assistant curator of photography, and David Newell, an assistant curator of decorative and fine art. In addition, the CHM's American Indian Task Force, made up of representatives from various tribes, was consulted, as were contemporary Navajo weavers, including those working on reservations and those here in the metro area, many of whom are associated with the Denver Indian Center.

The Indian consultants provided McArthur with an essential resource. "The team of Navajos determined the basic story that would be told in Spider Woman," she explains, "and they let us know when we mispronounced words and when the rugs were hung upside down."

Spider Woman begins with an explanation of the religious underpinnings of Navajo weaving. According to sacred tradition, weaving was brought to the Navajo by a deity. "The Navajos did not use a Navajo word to describe her, and referred to her in English as 'spider woman,'" says McArthur. The connection of weaving to spiders is an obvious one, made more so by McArthur's use of a lighted projection of a spider web on the wall opposite the entry to the exhibit.

According to Navajo religion, the Spider Woman was part of a pantheon of gods and goddesses called Yeis. One of the first weavings on display, "Sandpainting pictorial rug," which hangs next to the light projection of the spider web, lays out this sacred belief. "Sandpainting pictorial rug" was made circa 1950 by an unknown weaver from wool yarn that had been dyed using synthetic tints. It is rare for a weaving to be based on a sandpainting as this one is, because real Navajo sandpaintings are done by medicine men as part of curing ceremonies, whereas the rugs, as indicated by Spider Woman herself, are woven exclusively by women. "Weaving a sandpainting rug requires the weaver to recite many prayers during its making," McArthur says. To some of the Navajos who consulted on the show, the idea of a sandpainting rug was controversial because of their religious beliefs.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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