Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, Long Beach,
California and Nova York, United States
MASP — Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand presents, from October 20, 2023, to January 25, 2024, the exhibition Melissa Cody: Webbed Skies, which occupies the exhibition space on the 1st sublevel of the museum. Curated by Isabella Rjeille, Curator, MASP and Ruba Katrib, Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, MoMA PS1, the show gathers 26 textile works by the Diné/Navajo artist produced with a traditional Navajo loom. In her work, Cody intertwines symbols and historic patterns from the Navajo weaving with some personal references that range from the landscapes of her birth land, in the state of Arizona, to the pop world of videogames and music. The exhibition also includes a showcase with tools and materials used by Cody in her weaving, as well as documentations of her process, allowing the spectators to expand their knowledge about this ancient technique and its meanings in the Diné cosmovision. Organized by MASP — Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand and MoMA PS1, the exhibition will travel to MoMA PS1 from April 4 to September 2, 2024. The show is supported by Terra Foundation for American Art.
Melissa Cody (No Water Mesa, Navajo Nation, Arizona, United States, 1983) grew up in between the Navajo Nation, in the state of Arizona, and the south of California, where she currently lives. The artist defines herself as a “child from the 1980’s”, growing up with as much influence from the Navajo Culture than from the pixelated universe of the first video games and computers. In the Diné/Navajo cosmovision, weaving is a technology passed on by the women, under the guidance of the sacred figure of Na’ashjéii Asdzáá, the Spider-Woman, placing women as main figures in the maintenance of their communities. Heir of this ancestral knowledge, Cody is part of the fourth generation of artists in her family.
Throughout history, Navajo weaving has had its symbols, colors, materials, and techniques affected by cultural exchanges and commercial trade, as well as processes of forced migration. Through the use of patterns and vibrant colors, Cody’s works are commonly associated with the “Germantown Revival” movement, which arose after the tragic episode known as the “Long Walk” (1863–1866). This forced migration began after a documented campaign of arson, pillage, and the destruction of herds led by US officials, which aimed to expel the Navajo people from their lands. Facing both misery and hunger, the Navajo were forced to walk from Arizona to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. Those who survived the tragic journey were then imprisoned in a military internment camp at Fort Sumner and subjected to inhumane conditions, and then forced into a process of assimilation to the cultural and moral values of the United States.
The incorporation of this specific type of commercial wool, produced in Germantown, Pennsylvania, with vibrant colors obtained by aniline dyes, opened new horizons of experimentation in the midst of a situation of confinement. That way, this practice became essential for the survival and cultural resistance of the Diné/Navajo culture. “The inclusion of this new element was crucial for the continuity and innovation of an ancestral technology, challenging the colonial fiction that insists on linking Indigenous cultures to an immutable idea of “tradition” associated with an idyllic past”, elucidates the curator Isabella Rjeille.
In Navajo tapestry, color, patterns, symbols and materials carry meanings that Cody employs as a way of weaving new narratives with the loom. As the tradition states, each tapestry is conceived directly in the loom, without any previous drawing. Through a skilled use of colors, forms and combinations, Cody creates works of small, medium and large dimensions, challenging the medium itself and creating three-dimensional optical illusions. As the curator Ruba Katrib states “the enormous skill it takes to find symmetry and variation in the completed piece cannot be underestimated. Critical to this practice is the reliance upon memory and mathematical combinations, which underscores how weaving is a technology that has also led to the creation of our digital age, and which Cody responds to in her subject matter”.
Germantown Sampler (2011) is exemplary of the way the artist conceives of a dialogue between color and shape in the writing of this narrative. The light shades of green, blue and pink in the traditional serrated diamond shape gradually merge into vibrant colors, such as red, orange and brown (a reference to the use of the Germantown wool’s vibrant colors within Navajo history, as well as an allusion to the role played by creativity in resistance to colonial erasure). There is also an influx of black and gray lines that create a glitch effect over the traditional pattern, adding another historical layer: the influence of the digital universe in Cody’s textile production.
In the work Navajo Transcendent (2014) the artist brings out another cultural aspect into consideration, proposing a rupture with the colonial readings of the Navajo production, by reclaiming the whirling log, an ancient Diné sacred symbol associated with healing, the creation of the Navajo people and their spirituality, which, after the Second World War, started to be mistakenly confused with a swastika, disappearing from the Navajo tapestries traded in the United States as a way to avoid any misplaced association with the Nazi Germany. Rjeille explains that “in this piece, the symbol commonly represented by a flat drawing gains volume, as if breaking with the two-dimensionality of the medium and jumping towards the spectator”.
Cody is also known for her large-scale weavings, such as the monumental The Three Rivers (2021), produced during the Covid-19 pandemic, and divided in four parts. In this work, the artist translates the experience she had during this period of our recent history. On the other hand, in the work Into the Depths, She Rappels (2023), Cody references the Spider-Woman history with rainbow-like color combinations
The exhibition title is based on one of Cody’s works, entitled Under Cover of Webbed Skies (2021), which thematically brings together the history of Navajo weaving, the representation of Diné ancestral territory and the passing of knowledge between generations since the Spider-Woman. This work can be split into two planes, like a landscape: the sky, represented by the blue and green hues occupies the upper part, and the land, represented by the purple, pink and orange triangular shapes that resemble a mountain form the lower part. In the center of the work, there is a square that holds together three shapes that are reminiscent of an hourglass, which is one of the symbols that represents the Spider-Woman and that, when conveyed as a geometric pattern, becomes the grayish mesh of a web that entangles the greenish-blue sky. The three “hourglass” symbols in the middle of the composition are a reference to Cody herself and the generation of weavers that will come after her, such as her children and possibly grandchildren. The artist places the hourglass at the top of the triangular forms—which symbolize one of the sacred mountains of Cody’s ancestral territory—in a direct reference to the history of the Spider-Woman and weaving. The Spider-Woman lives on the mountain summit, strengthening the link between artistic practice and territory, as well as the importance of recognizing and respecting it as ancestral land.
“’Webbed’ Skies was the title chosen for the first exhibition of Melissa Cody’s works in Latin America. The sky is a common element to all territories, existing beyond any geographical or political border. Like a large blue blanket hovering over every single living being below it, Cody’s webbed skies extend beyond Dinetáh, connecting different narratives and ways of living together, intertwining cosmologies, territories and subjects in the creation, preservation and reclaiming of memories, histories, knowledges and ways of making”, states Isabella Rjeille.
In consonance with the mission of being a diverse, inclusive, and plural museum, the show features accessibility resources, including: a notebook of texts and subtitles with enlarged letters and five tracks of accessible audiovisual content, in universal design – audio description, Brazilian sign-language interpreter and subtitles. The content can be accessed through a QR Code, with an opening track also available in the exhibition, and a screen and headset located beside the wall panel.
Melissa Cody: Webbed Skies is part of MASP's annual program dedicated to Indigenous Histories. This year’s program includes shows by Carmézia Emiliano, MAHKU, Paul Gauguin, Sheroanawe Hakihiiwe, besides the long-term loan MASP Landmann of ceramics and pre-columbian metals, and the groupshow Indigenous Histories.