Weaving a Revolution: a celebration of contemporary Navajo baskets

A traveling exhibition from the Natural History Museum of Utah.

In a remote region of the Navajo reservation, a design revolution has been underway for the past thirty years. A cluster of families--the Bitsinnies, Blacks and Rocks--who have lived for generations in the isolated area of Monument Valley known as Douglas Mesa have quietly continued to make ceremonial baskets generations after basketry died out elsewhere in the region. Today, they make traditional ceremonial baskets as they always have, but they have also created an explosion of basket designs and imagery enthusiastically embraced by the international art market and fellow Navajos who are aware of this work. Swirling with geometric patterns, stylized plants and animals, and the sacred beings of origin stories, the baskets pay tribute to the past, preserve tradition, and honor creativity.

An exhibit that the whole family will enjoy

The stories and objects will appeal to those interested in art, culture, history, and indigenous traditions.

At the Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah, owners Barry and Steve Simpson began collecting innovative and artful baskets as they were brought into the shop by weavers to sell. Over time the collection grew to include nearly 250 remarkable baskets, recently acquired by the Natural History Museum of Utah. The collection is the foundation for Weaving a Revolution: A celebration of contemporary Navajo baskets. The exhibition tells the story of basket tradition in Navajo culture; the challenges, changes, and collaborations that fueled the revolution in design; and focuses on the stories embedded in the baskets themselves. First-person narratives from many of the basketmakers provide rich and personal insights.

The exhibit is organized in five thematic sections: Ceremonial Baskets, Innovation and Revival, Fueling the Revolution, Structures of Sumac, and Pushing Boundaries, Preserving Traditions. Along with immersive photo-environments, digital interactives, and eleven beautifully produced videos, the exhibit introduces visitors to the weavers, their remarkable work, and the stories that both underpin and carry forward basketry tradition.

Exhibit Configuration Options

The exhibition's modular design allows for flexible configurations of the components.

Fueling the Revolution Structures of Sumac Ceremonial Baskets Innovation and Revival Pushing Boundaries, Preserving Traditions
Fueling the Revolution Structures of Sumac Ceremonial Baskets Innovation and Revival Innovation and Revival
Fueling the Revolution Structures of Sumac Ceremonial Baskets Innovation and Revival Innovation and Revival

The design elements of ceremonial baskets combine to create a visual metaphor for the Navajo world, layered with meaning. Section one of the exhibiton focuses on this traditional form. Sometimes called a “wedding basket,” this basket pattern has been used for hundreds of years in Navajo ceremonial and secular life. A powerful and sacred object, a traditional basket is central in blessing ceremonies throughout a person’s life.

Installation View ➜

The appearance of trading posts on reservation lands, which coincided with the 1868 release of thousands of Navajos from four years of forced incarceration at Fort Sumner, New Mexico brought change to Navajo communities. With new commodities such as pots and jars, some kinds of baskets were no longer needed, and ceremonial baskets were being made by other tribes for Navajo use At the same time, rugs were the more profitable textile to make for exchange, and basket making nearly died out. A few traders, however, suggested that basketmakers try making something different. Soon, experimentation, collaboration, and new basket designs began to emerge around trading posts in Oljato, Blanding, and later Bluff. A new era in basket making was underway. Mary Holiday Black and her daughter Sally Black led the way with daring new designs that included sacred sand painting imagery, ancient pottery designs, and complex cultural narratives of animals and humans. The range of contemporary basket designs by the weavers of Douglas mesa has become vast, and includes colorful scenes of contemporary life, eye-dazzling geometries, and ancient and reimagined ceremonial basket patterns.

Installation View ➜

Following in the footsteps of historic traders and precedent set by earlier weaver/trader relationships, the Simpson family of Twin Rocks Trading Post encourages Navajo weavers to push the boundaries of their craft. They have provided images of pottery, rock art, and painting from around the Southwest to inspire the weavers as they develop new creative directions. In the 1990s the Simpsons hired Navajo graphic artist Damian Jim, to digitally render weavers’ ideas and to provide his own computer- generated designs.

Installation View ➜

The processes of gathering, preparing, and weaving sumac—the single material used to produce Navajo baskets—have remained unchanged for centuries, but many weavers are exploring new approaches to basket making. Some basketmakers are creating oval trays, large olla-shaped vessels, and deep s, while others are incorporating three- dimensional woven figures, carved objects, horsehair, and beads.

Installation View ➜

The basket revolution is remarkable in terms of change and innovation that occurred within a deeply entrenched artform. At the same time, the revolution has brought baskets full circle. This form, that for hundreds of years served as a sacred object for ceremony and ritual, has now become the carrier of these same ceremonies and rites—pictured in rich color, embedded in the baskets’ designs, the ceremonies and stories are being preserved in woven testament to history and tradition.

Installation View ➜

  • One-hundred original Navajo baskets from NHMU’s Twin Rocks Trading Post Collection, with custom object mounts and interpretive text
  • Easy-to-assemble modular panels and showcases, with interior case lighting
  • Graphic panels, banners, and large-scale photographic environments
  • Eleven original video programs (nine kiosks, two projectors)
  • Tabletop and digital tablet touch screen interactives
  • Public programs developed for audiences of all ages
  • Gallery interpreter training materials
  • Technical installation supervision and ongoing maintenance support
  • Exhibition catalogue (303 pages, hardcover, full color; 50 copies included with rental; additional copies available through NHMU)
  • Marketing and Public Relations package
  • Space required: 2,500-5,000 square feet
  • Shipping: Borrower responsible for rental fee and incoming shipping