FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — It has been an incredible year for 21-year-old Diné fiber artist and sixth-generation weaver Tyrrell Tapaha (he/they), from being named the Brandford/Elliott Award recipient by the Textile Society of America, to having a major textile on view at Forge Project and placed in the Gochman Family Collection. “I am very fortunate to not have to struggle. A lot of these opportunities have floated towards me,” Tapaha shared with Hyperallergic during an interview. “I felt that [my work] was important, and I felt that my voice was and is needed [in the art world].”
Growing up on the Navajo Nation, Tapaha was exposed to every facet of weaving, helping family members — also weavers — roll yarn balls, spin the yarn, and even assist with herding sheep, activities situated in the artist’s practice today. Tapaha learned by doing, with guidance and support from his Cheii (grandfather in his clan) and master weaver Roy Kady.
Tapaha’s work is a continuum of their culture, lived experience, and ideas about the future. “I use archaic tools to make contemporary stories,” they shared. “And with every piece I work on, I distill so much of my personhood and thoughts. They are people.” Tapaha’s approach is holistic, touching almost every part of their life. “It’s not even just the weaving, but the yarn that I’m spinning, where I spun it, where it came from. If I rolled it in an interview like I’m doing now, or at the bars last night.” With that, the material absorbs a certain level of atmospheric memory.
The works blend pictorial styles with abstracted spans of color and texture, often interspersed with text in Diné and English. Tapaha makes each piece from wool they harvest from their sheep, and vegetal dyes they make from plants in the Four Corners region. One textile, woven from a photograph of the artist’s grandmother amongst the family’s sheep, illustrates the ways Tapaha is bringing a new approach to pictorial Navajo textiles.
In addition to fiber-centric work, Tapaha is a printmaker. Oscillating between weaving’s long-form of art production and printmaking’s more mechanized form, the artist is able to play with timescales, expanding and contracting time’s elasticity. “I’m pretty interdisciplinary in my work,” they shared. “But I have a limited amount of weavings to work with — it’s lovely and awful,” they shared, laughing, while remarking that some days at the loom can be up to 16 hours and creating a large-scale piece can take several months.
Economic reality is always present for Tapaha. The majority of their larger works sells at art markets centered on Indigenous art and visual culture, including the two largest markets of their kind in the US, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts in Santa Fe and the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market in Phoenix. While these annual events, now at years 101 and 65, respectively, offer artists and makers venues to sell their work, they also have the potential to perpetuate trading post mentalities and colonial stereotypes of what looks “Native” and what does not, according to a dominant culture lens, pitting “traditional” designs against artists like Tapaha.
“When I first started [weaving professionally], the first words of advice I got were ‘if you want to make big money, weave a chief blanket.’” Tapaha notes that more experimental work, or work that doesn’t play into the “traditional” mode of production, often gets overlooked and therefore the spectrum of Indigenous creativity isn’t fully represented. “If I’m just a placeholder, so be it,” remarking that their work is aimed at dislodging antiquated stereotypes about what Indigenous artists and Indigenous weavers can do.
Editor’s note, 11/22/22, 12:04 EDT: An earlier version of this article misattributed an artwork to the Forge Project collection. It has been corrected.
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