The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is this year hosting a vibrant exhibition on Navajo jewelry, titled “Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family.” Focusing on the artistry of a single family over multiple generations, this exhibition is a stimulating and informative display of the culture of a community.
Coral, aquamarine, and lapis lazuli immerse the gallery space, the walls reflecting the effervescent colors of both the Navajo jewelry on display and the stunning landscape of the Four Corners that inspires the Yazzie design (Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona). Curated by Lois Sherr Dubin, “Glittering World” is perfectly organized, highlighting the natural surroundings, the makeup of each jewelry item, the trade of Navajo art, the Yazzie family, and their growth through the generations. Over 300 pieces of fine contemporary jewelry – bangles, rings, belt buckles, and necklaces – are featured on the walls in the Gustav Heyes Center in Battery Park. Of those, 59 are from the museum’s own collection; the rest come from collections from around the globe.
“Glittering World” is organized into ten sections: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family; Beliefs and Expression; Art and Commerce; The Yazzie Family Jewelry: Tradition and Transformation; Innovators: Inspiration and Collaboration; The Yazzie Family: Creating Art, Earning a Living; Turquoise; Lee A. Yazzie; Raymond C. Yazzie; and Mary Marie Yazzie. The exhibition focuses on the contemporary jewelry of the Yazzie family that is based in tradition.
“This exhibition tells a story of both the artisans and the craftsmanship, exploring the natural materials, cultural influences and surroundings that inspire the Yazzie family,”
said Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian. “But ‘Glittering World’ does not stop there. The exhibition goes beyond Native art to tell the story of the interplay between Navajo culture and commerce, which is in keeping with the museum’s mission to evolve the way visitors see and experience the long saga and continuing life of Native peoples.”
As you wander the exhibit, it becomes obvious just how closely the Yazzie jewelry is created in connection to the natural surroundings of the Midwest. A photograph of a sunset over a mountain is placed next to a bracelet of similar red, orange and coral colored stones. And a photograph of a clear blue sky over the valley is viewed next to a ring of the same turquoise color. One image after another presents the direct connection between art and nature. This display alone is enough to not only instill a sense of wonder into the viewer but to entice him or her to travel to the region to experience it for himself.
The Yazzie family has been creating jewelry for generations, beginning with Elsa and Chee Yazzie in the early 1900s. The couple had 12 children, almost all of whom fell into the jewelry-making business. The jewelry items created are not delicate or small and instead are powerful, strong pieces that represent the beauty of both the region and the people that inhabit it. Each item is different and recognized as fine art. Silver, gold, precious stones, and beads are each used in various pieces. One bracelet by Raymond Yazzie lays tube-like stones next to one another in a sunset of colored stones – coral, turquoise, and lapis lazuli, accented with silver and 14-karat gold. A ring on display that simply can’t go unnoticed, also by Raymond, is a solid piece created with a gold base, and stunning Lone Mountain and Orvil Jack turquoise stone, accented with small stones of coral, opal, and sugilite. A silver belt buckle created by Lee Yazzie is of simpler design but no less powerful, featuring a single Lone Mountain turquoise stone in the center, with smaller pieces of the stone inlaid around the edges.
The careers of Lee (b. 1946), Raymond (b. 1959) and Mary Marie (b. 1943) are specifically highlighted in “Glittering World” and their pieces are some of the most coveted from the New Mexico region. The exhibition displays jewelry from different stages of each artist’s career. giving the viewer the ability to see just how far the craftsmanship changes over the years.
Fittingly placed inside the former US Customs House, this exhibition is as much a display of commerce as it is of artistry. Dubin highlights how the Yazzies grew from selling at small trading posts for tourists to maintaining their own upscale boutique in their hometown of Gallup, New Mexico. The display on turquoise mining is especially interesting, giving the viewer the opportunity to see just what it takes to create a work. The video attached to this article is a great way to introduce yourself to the Yazzie family and the jewelry-making process.
Connected with the exhibition is the museum’s first exhibition-related store, where you can buy your very own Navajo jewelry. Also available is a full-color exhibition catalog written by the curator with words from the directors of major American Indian museums. The National Museum of the American Indian George Gustav Heye Center is located in the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House at One Bowling Green, open from 10-5 every day of the week. There is no admission fee. Head to this unique museum today to see one of New York’s most historic and architecturally vibrant buildings, housing a truly exciting exhibition now through January 2016. Saw the exhibition? We want to hear from you! Let us know by commenting in the space below or by tweeting to @egyptologist.