“The rug is a living thing, as are the People.” This is the philosophy that guides the work of Navajo weaver Venancio Aragon. Through his weaving, Aragon connects the modern world and contemporary ideas about what it means to be an artist to the culture and art of the Navajo. He sees weaving as an ongoing process through which he continues to learn and grow. This past year, he took a year off from his graduate studies to “live the life of a weaver”. Immersing himself in this art form has helped him understand where the culture is going and some ways to create the interactions weavers need to bring their work to a wider audience.
Aragon’s journey as a weaver began in a grade school bi-lingual class. Students were given flimsy cardboard looms to try to weave on. He took the loom home where his mother saw it and told him she knew how to weave. It was a fact she had not shared with him before. His mother taught him the skills she had laid aside years earlier. Today they both continue to weave. Later Aragon took textile classes at UNM. Over the years he has studied different styles and techniques, including ankle weaving. He also holds degrees in Anthropology and Native American Studies.
As most Navajo weavers are female, it might seem that Aragon is an anomaly. He feels, however, that if we go back to the past history of his people this would not be the case. It is his belief that weaving was not always a female occupation. Native culture was more open in the past, with less structured gender roles. With the coming of reservation life and the boarding school system, Christian values began to supersede traditional ones. These values included a stricter approach to gender roles. It began to be considered shameful for a man to weave, something considered to be the work of women instead. His belief appears to be bolstered by the early work of other male weavers such as Hastiin Klah. Klah’s weavings were exhibited in Chicago in 1892. According to Aragon, it is only in the last twenty years or so that male weavers have begun to articulate their own work. Today many well-known weavers are male.
It isn’t only gender stereotypes that have changed. Aragon has also seen what he calls a “breakdown of the traditional styles” that have historically been associated with the trading posts or with geographical areas. Weavers today interact with more design ideas from all over, incorporating some of them into their own work. Designs are less rigid than before, a fact that reinforces Aragon’s belief in the living expression that is Navajo weaving.
Selling his work has also shown Aragon that changes need to be made. Many weavers have a disconnect between themselves and their buyers. The only buyer they interact with is the trader, or the agent for collectors who wish to purchase the more expensive rugs. Aragon tries to avoid the trading post market, believing it to be “predatory”. He feels weavers marketed through the trading posts too often receive too little for their work. Instead he prefers to sell his work at venues where he can personally interact with the person purchasing the rug. This type of exchange also allows him to speak to those potential buyers about the weaving and what it means. It takes more effort but gives him a connection and a freedom that he values.
It is that freedom which he hopes to encourage through actively promoting more venues for weavers to sell their work. Aragon hopes to see Navajo artists begin to band together and think in larger terms about the future of their work. It is something he believes will happen for, as he puts it, “Navajos have had a great capacity to organize themselves over great distance”.
Navajo weavers have often depended on their rugs to see them through lean economic times. With more outlets and more opportunity to sell their work without losing so much of the sale price to a third party such as a trader, they can begin to see income from their efforts. Outlets such as the Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction and the annual Totah Festival in Farmington allow weavers to sell directly to those interested in purchasing their weavings. As the Crownpoint auction states on its website, the weavings are an important source of income for many Navajo. Those who are in the market for a Navajo rug would do well to check out some of these less commercial venues for purchasing rugs and other Navajo crafts.
Time and effort add up to another impact on the world of weaving. At the age of twenty-nine, Venancio Aragon is a young man. He is also at an age to understand how the economy of the modern world affects the production of art such as the woven rug. One of the most significant concerns is whether or not weaving is being passed on to a new generation.
Many Navajo children may learn weaving when they are young, but it takes more than the knowledge of technique to see a way to make a substantial living from their rugs. Most young people today must work at outside jobs. Because of the amount of time it takes to support themselves in the current economic climate, there is often little time to devote to a labor-intensive act such as weaving. Even if they have the time to devote to producing a rug, those who choose to weave must also devote more time to finding a way and a place to sell their work. There is also the concern of whether or not they will earn enough from the sale to match the materials and time put into the rug. Auctions are great opportunities but the sales don’t always come easily. In spite of these concerns, Venancio Aragon believes weaving will continue. As he puts it, “it has survived a lot of years already.”
Interview with Venancio Aragon
Interview with Bart Wilsey, Director, Farmington Museum, Farmington, NM