WOVEN IDENTITIES

When function doesn’t trump beauty

Each basket has a distinct identity that tells us its origin. In basket-making communities, weaving is tangible evidence of long-cherished traditions at the very heart of cultural continuity. Whether woven for personal use or for sale, baskets represent an artist’s values and beliefs—their unique identity—to the outside world. Contemporary basket weavers cultivate crucial connections to the past, weaving them with contemporary realities to construct a future for themselves, their families, and their communities. Currently at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture for the first time in over 30 years, a major exhibition of North American Indian baskets is on display and will run until April 1, 2014.

Five sections in the exhibition represent essential Native American basketry elements—materials, construction, form, design, and utility. How a weaver combines these elements determines a basket’s woven identity: where it was made; when it was made; who made it; for whom it was made; and why it was made. Studying objects ensures a deeper and richer understanding of people whose perspective cannot be found in historical written accounts. On exhibit are baskets woven by artists representing 60 cultural groups, today referred to as tribes, bands, or pueblos. The weavers’ ancestral lands are in six culture areas of Western North America: The Southwest, Great Basin, Plateau, California, the Northwest Coast, and the Arctic. Of the 241 baskets on display, only 45 are attributed to individual artists. Woven Identities honors those weavers and the many others whose names we do not know.

There was a time when every family had a full assemblage of baskets fulfilling all personal, family, and community needs; for harvesting, carrying, and storing food; as kitchen utensils for food processing and preparation; and, for cooking and serving. They held personal possessions, medicines, and objects of religious significance. Even clothing was constructed using basketry materials and techniques.

A weaver’s choice of material is a harmonious expression of deeply held beliefs. Although native peoples of western North America do not share a single, unified body of mythology, they all adhere to beliefs that account for how the earth and the people came to be. One recurring thematic thread is that the spiritual forces that shape and sustain human life are transmitted through forces of nature: rain, water, clouds, animals, and plants. Thus, the beauty of basketry begins with wild plants painstakingly selected, tended, processed, and prepared. A variety of plants and their components provide such fundamental basket-weaving material as roots, rhizomes, stems, branches, leaves, bark and blades of grass. Nothing is wasted.

The four basic techniques with numerous functional and decorative variations used to construct the baskets include: Coiling uses a spiraling foundation sewn together with a weaving element. Twining twists two or more weaving elements between vertical foundation rods. Plaiting has two active weaving elements crossing at right angles. Wicker passes weaving elements over and under foundation rods. Weavers also devised techniques to produce two-dimensional surface designs uniquely suited to a basket’s construction.

Generations of weavers, building upon their combined knowledge developed over time and experience, created hundreds of unique basketry shapes and sizes appropriate to the tasks at hand. Over time, standards for basket shapes were formalized, yet remained fluid enough to allow for the flexibility necessitated by ever-changing societies. The intrusion of non-Indian people and the consequent loss of homelands and self-sufficient life ways made many utilitarian baskets obsolete. And, for many weavers, it made sense financially to make baskets for the commercial market, rather than for personal use. As early as the 1600s, they wove serviceable containers for neighboring foreign households. By the late 1800s, the market had expanded to include high quality baskets for museums and collectors, as well as trinket baskets and eccentric forms for tourists.

Cosmology, community history, and identity are expressed through an artist’s skillful use of visual language – analogous to storytelling. Beginning in the late nineteenth century figurative designs became a way of expressing novel experiences and attracting buyers. Designs can include paired or opposing characters or qualities, literal and abstract expressions of harmony and balance, and colors or elements representing the four directions. Repetition, the basis of memory in oral cultures, also is a common feature of basketry design. A skilled weaver’s execution of the design on a basket form is simultaneously artistic and intuitive, analytical and mathematical.

Baskets are both tangible and visible symbols of identity. As women moved through daily life with their baskets they passed their knowledge to the next generation. Through this collective continuity, a basket’s materials, construction technique, form, and design convey without words a weaver’s community, familial, and individual identities. These baskets are the works of master weavers. Their preparation and use of materials, techniques, dexterity of execution, and the skillful integration of design and ornamentation are attributes, when interwoven with cultural legacy and creative vision, are hallmarks of a weaver’s expertise.

Steve Cantrell is the Public Relations Manager at NM Dept of Cultural Affairs.
For more information, please visit The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture at http://www.indianartsandculture.org/.

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