An Online Exhibition Presented By The Dancing Rabbit Gallery
Navajo Flute Music Courtesy of Andrew Thomas
All Rights Reserved
Diversity in Diné Art
(Hello, my relatives and my people.)
Yá'át’ééh, shik’èí dóó shidine’è Preface
The Navajo language is a subset of the Athabaskan language group, which includes the closely related Apache subset. The use of the word Diné to describe these peoples is deliberate, in that is how they prefer to be known. The meaning in their language is “the people.”
When Spanish explorers moved into the American Southwest, their native guides, often from other tribes, referred to the Diné as Navajo, which is a Zuni term for “invaders” or “enemy people.”
The Diné migrated to the Southwest from the Alberta and Wyoming areas roughly a thousand years ago, not coincidentally coinciding with the rapid decline and southward migration of the Ancestral Peoples (Anasazi).
During this time, the Navajo (Diné) peoples have lived and thrived in the American Southwest in close harmony with Mother Earth. Much of their copious artistic works reflect this relationship. The land is often rugged and bold, making it fertile ground for artistic inspiration. The Diné refer to this land as Diné Bikeyah. Preface
Many of the historic settlement areas of the Diné, such as Window Rock, Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley, are dramatic evidence of the ability of Mother Earth to combine form, color, and materials to produce glorious and picturesque settings.
This exhibition is intended to celebrate the wide diversity of art produced by the highly talented artists within the Navajo Nation. Within the exhibition, we will showcase examples of Diné artistry in fine art, basketry, pottery, jewelry, and sculpture. Diversity
The Diné artists are quick learners and highly adaptive. For thousands of years, they observed and learned from those around them, such as the Hopi, Puebloan peoples, Havasupai, and Ute. They traded widely with other far-away cultures, such as the Inca of South America and Caddo of the Southeastern United States. They acquired techniques, materials, and inspiration from those groups and adapted and incorporated elements that they liked into their own distinctive art. Diné art clearly represents the Diné culture, but the linkages to many other indigenous peoples gives it a very universal appeal.
The first recorded artistic creations come from the petroglyphs and pictographs found throughout this region. Many of these carved and painted images reflect the daily life of the Diné, including depictions of animals, crops, activities like hunting and dancing, religious symbols, and other similar images. Lacking a written language, the Diné utilized these images in conjunction with their rich and detailed oral histories. Many current Diné painters draw inspiration from these images and from their surroundings, producing emotional and inspirational representations of their culture.
Ancestral Iconography and Values
The Diné have brought forward their petroglyphs and pictographs across many artistic media. It is not unusual to see the same image on a basket, a weaving, a piece of jewelry, and in a painting. These symbols tell stories of the Diné culture, the Diné values, and the Diné history. Roger Deale, Jr.
David K. John
Traditional Diné images are laden with stories of
the people, the history, and the culture of this
amazingly versatile and resourceful people. The
images contain stories and meaning far below the surface iconography. Images of Diné Culture
David K. John
The sacred spirits are
often portrayed as they
are seen in the dances
and ceremonial regalia
of the Diné.
David K. John
Bluebirds and hummingbirds, very common throughout the
Diné lands, are viewed as
messengers from the holy
spirits to the elders of the tribe. Messengers of the Holy Spirits
David K. John
Here we see the
The horse and rider
are representative of
the close relationship
between Diné and
their horses. David K. John
Embedded Diné Symbology
The color palette of many Diné artists reflects their surroundings.
Sharp blue skies, combined with brown and ochre landscapes, give a pleasing harmony of colors for the artist.
Artists must be very careful to show only elements of the culture that are acceptable for non-Diné to view.
The Southwestern Color Palette
Dorothy Dunn is credited with establishing the Studio School at the Santa Fe Indian School in 1932. Her style, while distinctively flat and juvenile, gave inspiration to a number of artists who utilized her lessons.
Among Dorothy’s art students were Harrison Begay, Allan Houser, Pablita Velarde, Alfonso Roybal, Julian Martinez, and many others. Harrison Begay
The Legacy of Dorothy Dunn
Students of Dunn
were encouraged to
paint what they knew
– scenes from their
homes and from
Paintings from Life
Roger Deale, Jr.
Later artists, while still using many of Dunn’s artistic techniques, incorporated many Diné symbols and stories into their works.
Roger Deale, Jr.
The handprint often represents the presence of man. Distinctively Diné
Symbols found in the Diné paintings often incorporate the same iconography as that
found in weavings, pottery, jewelry, baskets,
and other elements of Diné art. Roger Deale, Jr.
Our People, Our Land
Pottery and baskets were utilitarian means of gathering and storing seeds, food, and other items. Because of the prevalence of piñon trees throughout the Diné area, the pitch from these trees was often used to seal the pots and baskets to prevent leakage. That led to the distinctive fire and smoke clouds seen on traditionally fired pots and to the dark coloration on the insides of many traditionally made baskets. Until the 20th century, Diné culture did not allow figurals to be added to pottery or baskets, so they were often unadorned. Basketry
One of the earliest methods of storage, basketry evolved rapidly among the different cultures around the world. The techniques of making baskets, however, tended to be relatively common among a specific group of people, but quite distinct from other groups of people. Basketry
The most common type of basket construction is coiling in which a larger substance is coiled in circles starting at the center. A thinner material is stitched around the coils to hold them in place. This material can add decoration. Sometimes, the thick material is actually a bundle of thin materials like grasses. The coil is spiraled outward and, unless the intent is a plaque, upward. This method offers more strength and more opportunity for decoration. Diné Wedding and Ceremonial Baskets
The main feature of any wedding basket is the pathway
design, adapted from the Navajo creation story. The black
design symbolizes the darkness (night) and clouds that bring
the rain. The white part inside the black design represents the sacred mountains. The outside white area represents the dawn and is tied together with the outside rim which represents a person’s thoughts, prayers, and values. The red part within the black design represents the life giving rays of the sun, and is often called a rainbow. Basketry Pathway
There is always a line from the center of the basket to the outer rim, a path from the center for the Spirit to come and go. The basket has a pathway which leads out to the edge where the weaver has stopped coiling. The rim of a Navajo wedding or ceremonial basket always terminates opposite the spirit line.
Diné basket making has declined in recent decades, but survives because of the importance of wedding and ceremonial baskets. Sarah Ross
Today weavers are receiving deserved recognition for their baskets
whether they are to be used in ceremonies, weddings, or sold to collectors. Rose Johnson
Basketry As Art
Traditional Diné Pottery
For hundreds of years, Diné pottery utilitarian vessels were used for carrying water, storing seeds and foods, serving meals, and other highly plebian needs. The clay for the pots was carefully dug from the ground, ground into a fine powder, and reconstituted into a screened clay with water and wedging. The wedging was necessary to remove air pockets from the clay, which would cause explosions during the firing. After the clay was built into the desired vessel, it was fired outdoors with a wood or manure fuel surrounding the vessel. That fuel gave the dark smoke clouds so typical of Diné pottery.
Louise Rose Goodman
Adding Dimension and Decoration
Within the past fifty years, the Diné tribal elders have allowed figurals to be added to the pottery, initially seen as appliques of local creatures like frogs and lizards, but rapidly moving into sculptural elements. Louise Rose Goodman
Pottery Figurals and Fanciful Images
Additionally, the traditional utilization of monochrome glazes has moved in a new direction with the adoption of polychrome paints similar to that used by many of the Pueblo potters. Again, the Diné adapt and imitate the best practices of their neighbors, yet put a traditional Diné appearance to the pottery. Lucy McKelvey
Diné Polychrome of Today
Ever Evolving Jewelry
the utilization of these techniques to begin crafting their own silver jewelry. After the forced march in 1864 to the Bosque Redondo detention area, the Diné began to incorporate turquoise and subsequently other gemstones into their jewelry. Continued refinement of the tools and techniques by Navajo Nation jewelers has produced some of the most elegant pieces of wearable art ever seen, easily rivaling those of jewelers around the world. Jewelry
With the introduction of silversmithing by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1600’s, the Diné rapidly embraced
The earliest works were concho belts, bracelets, and necklaces, but eventually expanded to a full range of jewelry. Today, some of the most popular features of Navajo Indian jewelry include high quality gemstones, intricate incised and stamped patterns, and expansion beyond sterling silver into gold and other precious metals.
The Spanish brought the techniques and tools of silversmithing, and the Diné rapidly adopted this art form. For many Diné artists, melting and molding the silver, sometimes with finishing stamp work, was a significant accomplishment.
Atsidi Sani is widely believed to be the first Diné to learn
silversmithing, working with the metal as early as 1860. It was
he who taught the trade to other Indian tribes living in the
Southwest, including the Zuni and Hopi. With the knowledge of
silversmithing, the Diné began working with melted down coins and other silver wares to make their own jewelry. As the knowledge was passed on to Sani’s sons and others, artists were able to refine their techniques, adding gems or casting with sandstone. It Began With Atsidi Sani
Sand casting creates a matte finish with an antique feel as opposed to a more high-shine finish. Every piece of
Diné jewelry created by sand casting is truly a one-of-a-kind piece — the mold is destroyed by the molten silver. Sand casting is considered one of the most difficult silversmithing techniques to master, but the Diné artists keep this rich tradition alive. Sand Cast Jewelry Creation
Tufa-casting is an old Diné technique where the
impression of the bracelet is carved in volcanic stone
(tufa-stone) and the molten metal is poured into the
impression. This was one of the very first techniques that the Diné created in the late 1800’s. Tufa Cast – A Diné Technique
Although concho belts have been a hallmark of Diné
culture for many years, it is believed that they
borrowed the design from Mexican horse bridles. In the earliest days, Diné concho belts were made from hammered Mexican or U.S. silver coins. The flattened coins were then stamped by hand and strung on leather to form the concho belt.
During the 1900s, the basic concho belt design got several
new features. Buckles and butterfly-shaped spacers were
added to the belts, and artists adorned their pieces with
Generally, there are two main types of concho belts: leather
and link. Leather concho belts feature conchos strung along leather, whereas link concho belts connects the conchos with silver chain links. Concho Belts
A naja is a crescent-shaped pendant that appears either alone or as the centerpiece of a squash blossom necklace in Diné jewelry. Naja is the Diné word for crescent.
It is believed that the symbol originated from the Moors and was then adopted by the Spanish as an ornamental design on horse bridles and men’s belt buckles. When the Spanish came to the American Southwest, the Diné borrowed this symbol for their own jewelry.
Yei and Yeibechai Style Rugs
Yei rugs began appearing in the 1890’s as trading posts encouraged their weavers to include these religious figures in their weavings. During the 1920’s, two distinct styles of yei/yeibechai rugs developed. Rugs made in the area of Shiprock tend to have light colored backgrounds with no border, while rugs woven in Northeastern Arizona tend to have simple borders with dark backgrounds. From Dr. Mark Sublette, owner of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson This Yei rug features square headed female dancers facing outward holding feathers. As is recommended, this rug has always been hung on the wall.
Sculpture – Three Dimensional Art Forms
David K. John
David K. John
Mixed Media Sculpture
Along with pottery, jewelry, and the other diverse art forms, Diné artists embraced sculpture as a three-dimensional means of expressing their artistic souls. Stone, wood, glass, metals (including bronze), and even pottery are all sculptural mediums currently being utilized by Diné artists.
Easily carved cottonwood is prevalent and easily
obtained in the Navajo Nation. Therefore, early carvers developed figural representations for both religious purposes and teaching purposes. Roger Pino
The recent trend in the making of katchinas has been to sell to tourists, thus are not exact replicas of Diné religious items. This is to limit the knowledge of non-Diné people of the sacred religious aspects of the Diné.
Cottonwood trees, prevalent in the Navajo Nation, are an easily carved and painted wood source. Oreland Joe Sr.
Evolving from found stones that represented figures, the Diné carvers knapped stone into weapons and also into religious items. The art of knapping stones into sharp edges had a significant impact on the ability of the Diné to hunt for food and engage in predatory raids on other tribes, for which they rapidly became known. The use of stone for religious items was not as prevalent due to the weight of the items compared to wood, but the durability was a significant factor in its favor. Carol Lujan
Though practiced in Europe and Asia for many centuries,
the skills and equipment of making molten glass into
sculptures has only entered the Native American skillset within
the past half-century. Kilns required to heat the molten glass
to two thousand or more degrees are not common, but as this
art form is spreading throughout the Native American population, there are a number of Diné artists exploring and utilizing this medium. David K. John
Incorporating glass with other elements, such as
the gold, silver, and feathers found in this
representational dance mask, are becoming
increasingly prevalent as artists explore and
utilize mixed media on their glass platforms. David K. John
Pottery As Sculpture
Departing from traditional storage
vessels, Diné artists are using
pottery and mixed media elements
to create additional 3D representations
of their culture. David K. John
Pottery As Sculpture
Stylized figures lend
themselves to a
imagination. Jack Black
David K. John
With the incursion of Spanish explorers, the ability to create
bronze molded figures became a skillset of the Diné artists.
Rapidly, they began sculpting and casting bronze figures of
wildlife and even representational people in their culture.
As a result, the bronzes of the past few hundred years are
rare and only becoming more prevalent in the past century. An Incredible Talent Pool
The largest reservation in the United States, the Navajo Nation covers over 27,000 square miles within the States of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. There are approximately 400,000 Diné registered on tribal rolls, making it the largest Native American tribe in the United States. As a result, there are thousands of Diné artists experimenting and producing art at prodigious levels, giving them the largest volume of Native American art in the world.
Artistry On Display
The wide diversity and high level of quality of Diné artistry can be seen at the highest level of juried art shows and competitions. Additionally, there are events such as the Navajo Fair in Window Rock, Arizona (the legislative capital of the Navajo Nation) held in 2022 from September 4-11, and the world-famous Crownpoint Navajo Rug Auction held monthly by the Crownpoint Weavers Association. As a result of the sheer number of Diné artists and their innate curiosity of adapting and innovating within their artistic milieu, there are thousands of Diné artists experimenting and producing art at prodigious levels, giving them the largest volume of Native American art in the world.
High Expectations for the Future
The future of Diné art is bright indeed. Thank you for visiting our exhibition. We hope that we provided you with a deeper understanding
of Diversity of Diné Art and have provided you some insights
of the exceptional talents of Native American artists.
A clever individual, Kokopelli has become an icon of celebration recognizable by both Native American and other peoples. This simple iron figure stands as décor in my Gallery space, bringing a light spirit and gleeful tone to the world. Please feel free to let your friends know about this exhibition, which will run as a Featured Exhibition
on The Dancing Rabbit Gallery website, www.thedancingrabbitgallery.com,
through the end of August, 2022.