Holistic Symmetry in Navajo Art
Holistic symmetry is a universal theme in Navajo culture, expressing a particular feeling for life and for the world. To one degree or another and in one way or another, most Navajo works of art express this universal theme. The creative experience in Navajo culture must be seen and understood in this context, for, in a wide variety of artistic endeavors, as well as in ordinary pursuits, Navajos experience and express this theme. Navajo culture - like other cultures - is not just a food gathering strategy. It enriches experience by placing it in an aesthetic as we as a meaningful context.
Art is not a separate or a distinct domain of Navajo culture. The theme of h—zh— permeates the entire culture. Nevertheless, one kind of artistic endeavor is recognized in Navajo language. This is na'ach'aah which really refers to Òdrawing, designing or creating a visual composition.Ó It includes all the visual arts with which non-Navajos are familiar, such as sculpture, weaving, and painting, but it does not include sandpainting. To the Navajo, sandpaintings are sacred forms and visual representations of sacred texts to be used for healing purposes; they are not creative designs of contemporary artists; therefore, they are not included in the domain of na'ach'aah, which might be glossed as Òthe creative visual artsÓ in Navajo culture. This domain, however, is just one form of expression in which holistic symmetry is found.
Navajo art involves expressions of cosmic concert. As with most origin stories, the world of the Navajo originates in a nameless, formless, colorless, and meaningless condition. Pattern, dimension, direction, sensibility, order, beauty, and harmony are added to this domain by the ancient and profound personalities called the Diyin DineÕŽ ÒHoly People.Ó Accordingly, the universe comes alive with color, dimension, direction, gender, season, life cycle, and generation. For the traditional Navajo artist, aesthetic creation becomes a celebration and a renewal of this primordial achievement of the Holy People. It is a commemoration or a reenactment of the experience of the Holy People as they creatively thought and sung the world into existence, imbuing it with shape, pattern, dimension, color, beauty, harmony, and meaning.
In each composition, the Navajo artist experiences in smaller dimensions the aboriginal achievement of thought and action in re-creating and re-ordering the world. Creation is primordial and transcendental. In experiencing it, the Navajo artist transcends his or her ordinary station in life and assumes the station of the Holy People. Not surprisingly, then, she or he often integrates the symbols of the Holy People into his or her abstract reformulations of the world.
To the Navajo, like other Indians of the Southwest, religion is not an intellectual exercise of belief; it is an art form that is based in performances -- songs, dances, prayers, paintings, stories, ceremonial concerts. Religion is not a matter of allegiance; it is an experience of cosmic concert, a communal song and dance with cosmic dimensions. In the Navajo language, the verb stem -zh’’sh refers to the orderly movement of heavenly bodies and to the forms of dance found in ritual. Indians of the Southwest dance to the rhythms of the universe, to the cycles of the earth, to the pulsation of organic life, and to the forms of divine creation and human imagination. From these Native peoples of the Southwest, we can learn that art is the essential act of consciousness and an act essential to consciousness. Art is a way of seeing the world and a way of being in the world.
Art is not a marginal activity pursued by eccentric specialists. For the Navajo, it is an experience common to everyone. Art is an act essential to living in concert. While Navajo activities include drama and dance, song and storytelling, basketry and pottery, architecture and horticulture, among others, the Navajo are most famous for their woven compositions, their silver and turquoise jewelry, and their sandpainting. Here we will explore holistic symmetry in these three art forms, noting particularly how holistic symmetry, as a basic theme and pattern of Navajo language and art, also provides the foundation of Navajo aesthetics. We will deal first with sandpainting, then silverwork, and conclude with a discussion of weaving.
Sandpainting is not a unique art of the Navajo, but they have taken it further than any other American Indian group. The idea of using visual art as a means of healing the sick is also not unique to the Navajo, for sandpainting is also done in Tibet as part of curing rites. But visual art as a means of medical treatment is an idea that may seem strange to Western medical practitioners. Though this is not the place to thoroughly explore Navajo theories of illness and treatment, it is necessary and important to say a little on this subject by way of introducing the domain of sandpainting.
Traditionally, sandpainting was done only as a part of curing or blessing rituals. Today, commercial and scholarly interests have enticed some Navajos to do sandpaintings to satisfy these alien interests, but for the most part sandpainting is still done only as a part of ritual performances, which are performed primarily for the purpose of healing the sick.
Navajo concepts of good health, like nearly everything else, are linked to the notion of h—zh—. When a person is in good health, one will say shil h—zh—, Òwith me there is h—zh—,Ó or shaa h—zh—,Òfrom all around me there is h—zh—.Ó When a Navajo is in good health, he or she is in harmony with his or her whole environment, a participant in the cosmic concert of h—zh—. When one gets out of harmony with the cosmic concert of h—zh—, then one becomes ill. To restore the condition of h—zh—, one of 60 or so ceremonies is performed. One of the significant parts of these ceremonies is restoring a proper and healthy relationship with the Diyin DinŽ'Ž. As the mentors of the People of the Earth's Surface and as the inner forms of various entities and parts of the earth and the cosmos, these Diyin DinŽ'Ž must be respected and honored for harmony to be in the cosmos and health in the individual.
Both the inner forms and the outer forms of the Diyin DinŽ'Ž, as well as many of the concepts they embody, are depicted in sandpaintings. These depictions envision a cosmos restored to harmony, and the patient then is placed on the sandpainting at its center, becoming absorbed into the beauty and harmony of the cosmic concert. As the patient is placed in and absorbed by the sandpainting, the patient absorbs the h—zh— of the sandpainting. The patient accomplishes this through visualization, through direct contact, through the songs and prayers that are sung to describe and enliven the painting, and sometimes through using the natural pigments of the painting as a pillow for four days after the ceremony.
Sandpaintings in many ways are part and parcel of the environment that they depict. The pigments are gathered from the natural environment, taken from finely pulverized yellow, red, and white sandstone, which are also mixed with charcoal to create other hues. Charcoal and white sand are mixed to create shades of blue/green; charcoal is also mixed with red sand to create brown hues. Red and white sand are mixed to create pink. Because of the use of charcoal, pollens, and other vegetable matter in the paintings of the Blessingway, sandpainting is a misnomer: these visual creations can more appropriately be called drypaintings. We would prefer to call them earth paintings because the compositions are made on the earthen floor of the hooghan and because the materials from which the paintings are composed are taken directly from the earth. Nevertheless, to avoid confusion resulting from a proliferation of terms, we shall simply call these compositions sandpaintings as they are generally referred to in the Southwest and in the literature.
The images of the sandpaintings are a fixed part of the ceremony of which they are a part. They were learned from the Holy People by the People of the Earth's Surface. Through instruction, observation, and apprenticeship, these images are passed down as part of the knowledge of the Singer who performs the ceremony. The Singer in a given performance will usually direct several assistants to create the paintings as he or she describes, instructing them to make corrections whenever they go array from the image as it is fixed in the Singer's mind. We have helped make sandpaintings at sings we have attended.
Sandpaintings are made by trickling dry pigments from between the thumb and the index finger. The pigments are set off to the side, usually contained in various shells. Painters pick up small portions of particular pigments and trickle them onto the smoothed floor of the hooghan. Commonly, paintings are made by two to five painters, each standing over and moving around the composition as they paint according to the instructions of the Singer. The composition may vary in size from a diameter of one foot to a diameter of fifteen feet. The average painting is probably around five or six feet in diameter. No one as yet has calculated how many different sandpainting images exist, but more than 500 have been recorded by various collectors (Wyman 1970b: 6).
While the general outline of sandpainting images are to a large extent fixed by ritual prescription from antiquity, many scholars have recognized that sandpainting is, nevertheless, an important artistic endeavor:
The innumerable combinations of a limited number
of symbols in daring and subtle variations within the frozen limits of ritual prescriptions give evidence of ingenious creativity in the past. Although correctness, lest the instrument be faulty and therefore dangerous, is emphasized . . ., there is some evidence, that, mixed with the concern for function, there is an esthetic component. The good and the beautiful are inseparable for that which is correctly performed, and therefore useful, cannot be ugly. Moreover, how can we explain the elaboration of sandpaintings beyond a merely functional level - with concern for the artistic devices of balance between darks and lights, symmetry, contrast, and other similar aspects - on other than esthetic grounds? Sandpaintings are truly concrete embodiments of that untranslatable term which describes everything that the Navaho thinks is good and favorable to man, and which we render "beautiful" for want of a more inclusive word in English. Perhaps "harmony" would be a better rendering, for the words derived from this Navaho stem cover such things as harmony, perfection, goodness, normality, success, blessedness, order, peace, prosperity, happiness -- in short, everything that man desires. It is the Navaho's basic value concept, the center of their religious thought. (Wyman 1970b:vii).
One of the basic and most important components of the concept of h—zh—, as conceived in Navajo culture, as described in Navajo language and as visually depicted in sandpaintings, textiles, and silverwork, is holistic symmetry.
We have never photographed or otherwise recorded a sandpainting, and we are reluctant to present any here, but many have been recorded or otherwise taken out of their ritual contexts by others, and most of this has been done with the permission of the Singers involved. A collection of re-creations of sandpaintings of the Nightway were recently published in the book The Nightway, by James Faris (1990). Because Faris collaborated with Navajo institutions and the Navajo Singers of this ceremony themselves, we assume that this publication of sandpaintings was done with Navajo approval. We will, therefore, limit our presentation here to some of the sandpaintings published in The Nightway.
Most sandpaintings follow a quadrilateral, symmetrical format. Bilateral symmetry is also common in sandpaintings. The quadrilateral format is basically created by the perpendicular intersection of bilateral symmetries, creating a kind of Greek cross with a strong center. Another common format found in sandpaintings is octangular, occuring when two quadrilateral formats intersect at 45 degree angles (Plates 7, 10 and 11).
In these octangular compositions, the resulting visual energy and movement is bidirectional or bipolar: (1) it radiates from the center outward, and (2) it revolves in a circular or cyclical pattern around a static center. The octangular format gives the sense that the eight axes of the composition are rotating. This is in fact the stated intent of the format found in the sandpainting frequently described as the whirling logs (Plate 7). The holistic symmetry of this format consists of a complementary synthesis of the bipolar energies of radial and revolving movement. In a sense, this image may represent the Navajo idea of perpetual motion, complementary and counterbalancing, effecting a perpetual ebb and flo.
Both revolving and radial movement in these compositions are generated from and controlled by a central static hub. Therefore, another basic Navajo bipolar symmetry is portrayed in this octangualar format. This is the bipolar symmetry of static and active, which is metaphorically related to the bipolar symmetry of inner/outer, with the inner form representing the static dimension and the outer form representing the active dimension.
Sandpaintings also effect a spatial integration or synthesis. They integrate the earth below, the sky above, and the world all around from their central position in the hooghan. Songs of the Blessingway indicate that the hooghan in which the sandpainting is made is thought of as the universe in microcosm. The hooghan is made of earth and sky poles, with supports from Water Woman, Mountain Woman, Corn Woman, and Earth Woman (Wyman 1970: 114-115). When finished, it becomes constituted of Sa'ah Naagh‡i and Bik'eh H—zh— through the songs of the Blessingway. Then h—zh—, translated here by Wyman (1970: 118) as beauty, radiates in every direction from the interior of the hooghan:
It is my hogan where, from the back corners beauty radiates, it radiates from a woman.
It is my hogan where, from the rear center
beauty radiates, it radiates from a woman.
It is my hogan where, from the fireside
beauty radiates, it radiates from a woman.
It is my hogan where, from the side corners
beauty radiates, it radiates from a woman.
It is my hogan where, from the doorway on and on
beauty radiates, it radiates from a woman,
it increases its radius of beauty.
Navajo thoughts about the hooghan are also expressed in the prayer for the first dancers in the Night Chant, which also illustrates how the hooghan is thought of as the world in microcosm:
House made of Dawn,
House made of Evening Twilight.
House made of Dark clouds,
House made of Male Rain.
House made of Dark Mist,
House made of Female Rain.
House made of grasshopers.
At the door of Dark Mist
is a pathway of Rainbow.
In beauty I live (walk on into the future).
With beauty before me, I live.
With beauty behind, I live.
With beauty below me, I live.
With beauty above me, I live.
With beauty all around me, I live.
Beauty has been restored!
Beauty has been restored!
Beauty has been restored!
Beauty has been restored!
These songs and prayers indicate the cosmic and aesthetic contexts in which the sandpaintings are created. The sandpainting is made at the center of the hooghan. The transparency and the positioning of the sandpaintings make them part and parcel of the earth below, the sky dome above, and the rainbow path extending out the door to the encompassing world. The octangular format of the painting corresponds to the shape of the hooghan, many of which are octagons. The opening to the east left by the bordering rainbow of many sandpaintings corresponds to the open door to the east and the pathway that extends outward from the hooghan.
The ceremonial sandpainting is not only in harmony with the natural world in which it is created; it is also a powerful integrating, synthesizing, and centering part of that world. It is not merely an image of the cosmos; it centers a multidimensional cosmos and places the patient at the center of that cosmos, at the center of the symmetrical whole, and at the center of the cosmic concert.
Sandpainting is a two-dimensional art only to the uninitiated alien. To the Navajo, it is multidimensional, and it is powerful! This power is both visual and conceptual, metaphorical and literal, aesthetic and therapeutic. The pigments of the painting come from the outer forms of the natural world, while the images of the paintings come from the inner forms of the natural world. The cosmos is absorbed into the image of the painting, and the painting is absorbed into the cosmos it portrays.
This is the primary reason that sandpaintings lose their power and impact when they are photographed, put on canvas or carried about thoughtlessly. Such alienation of the sandpainting estranges it from both its cosmological and its semiotical contexts. In this diminishment or desecration, the sandpainting becomes merely two-dimensional art, but in its proper place, the sandpainting is the powerful and sacred center of the cosmic whole.
Part of the therapeutic effect of the sandpainting is its power to center the psyche of the patient and to place the centered patient at the center of the cosmos. Centering is correcting, balancing and focusing - thus healing. Sandpainting images integrate inner and outer forms, thought and action, spirit and substance, male and female, earth and sky, portraying the complementary bipolar symmetry of the Navajo cosmos. The placing of the patient at the center of these sandpaintings reveals a conspicuous intent to absorb the patient into the cosmos and to absorb the cosmos into the patient. This absorption - this psychic and cosmic reunion -- restores the sense of place, orientation, equilibrium, centeredness, and well-being of the patient.
Sandpaintings represent the most thorough and the most complete visual exegesis of the Navajo psyche and the Navajo comprehension of the cosmos. As Wyman notes, they represent graphic and sacred renderings of h—zh—. They draw even the casual viewer into the center of the composition and express the inner and outer dynamics of a symmetrical cosmos in motion and in concert.
The Navajo have been sculpturing silver and turquoise jewelry for a couple of centuries. Unlike weaving and sandpainting, this art is three-dimensional. Like weaving and sandpainting, silverwork holds meanings to the Navajo not readily apparent to outsiders.
For the Navajo, silver has economic and aesthetic value, while turquoise has ceremonial and religious, as well as economic and aesthetic, value. Although non-Navajo tend to view both silver and turquoise as precious jewels, the Navajo include turquoise in their list of sacred jewels and shells (ntl'iz ‡ltas'Ž’), but silver is not included in this domain of sacred jewels, which does include jet, white shell, and abalone. In the quadrilateral symmetry of the Navajo universe, white shell is associated with the east, turquoise with the south, abalone with the west, and jet with the north. These sacred items are part of nearly every ceremony and are linked with the four sacred mountains that circumscribe the domain of the Navajo. Sometimes coral, rock crystal, and ceremonial flint are included in the sacred jewels used in ceremonies.
Turquoise would seem to be the primary referent of the color term for blue/green. The word for the color category of blue/green -- dootl'izh -- is the base word for turquoise: dootl'izh’ Òthe one that is blue/green.Ó When a Navajo speaker wishes to distinguish blue from green, he or she will say 'sky blue' y‡dootl'izh or 'earth green' ni'dootl'izh. Turquoise is the one sacred item in the Navajo universe whose hue range covers the spectrum of what English speakers call blue and green, and thus we get the name of turquoise as 'the one which is blue/green'.
Silver is known as bŽŽsh ligh‡’ 'white metal' in comparison with 'red metal' (copper), 'yellow metal' (brass), and 'blue metal' (lead). This category of rigid materials -- bŽŽsh -- also includes flints such as 'dark agate flint'. Although flint is a ceremonial item, the metals in this category are not ceremonial items. Nevertheless, the Navajo value silver for its attractiveness, its malleability, and its economic value.
Silver is also valued for its aesthetic bipolarity with turquoise. Much of Navajo jewelry is made by integrating the non-ceremonial, light, achromatic, and malleable silver with the ceremonial, dark, chromatic, and immaleable turquoise. The composite synthesis of silver and turquoise results in one image formats that possesses holistic symmetry.
The silverwork in Plates 13-17 illustrate both holistic symmetry and the power of the center. Strong centers in these compositions, many of which are inlayed with turquoise, integrate all the dynamic elements of these sculptures into one image formats. The images are based on bilateral and quadrilateral symmetry, with each half or each quadrant combining to make the whole. Curved and straight lines move outward from a static center or hub. In this way, these pieces express and integrate the bipolar symmetry of static and active, a juxtaposition of dimensions that produces energy under control.
The centers in Plates 13-17 take various shapes. These shapes include ovals, circles, diamonds, and hexagons. Each of these centers integrates the energy and the aesthetics of the pieces in a way that is focused and holistic without restraining the incessant vibrancy of these pieces. The pieces move in two ways. First is the movement outward from the center, which we might call evolving movement. Second, is a rotational or revolving movement in most of the pieces found in Plate 17. This pattern corresponds to the pattern of many sandpaintings.
Weaving, by its very nature and technique, is inherently integrative, holistic, and systemic. Therefore, it does not seem metaphorically insignificant that so many people speak of a cosmic web, and not surprisingly, that the ancestors of the Navajo learned to weave from Spider Woman. The description of Spider Woman's loom illustrates the Navajo conception that weaving is an act of universal integration and an art that expresses cosmic holism:
Spider Woman instructed the Navajo women how to weave on a loom which Spider Man told them how to make. The crosspoles were made of sky and earth cords, the warp sticks of sun rays, the healds of rock crystal and sheet lightning. The batten was a sun halo, white shell made the comb. There were four spindles: one a stick of zigzag lightning with a whorl of cannel coal; one a stick of flash lightning with a whorl of turquoise; a third had a stick of sheet lightning with a whorl of abalone; a rain streamer formed the stick of the fourth, and its whorl was white shell. (Reichard 1934: frontispiece).
The loom of Spider Woman represents the Navajo universe in microcosm. By weaving on a loom made of earth and sky cords, sun rays and sun halos, zigzag, flash and sheet lightning, rain streamers and precious jewels, the Navajo weaver unites the Sky Father with the Earth Mother, and this interwoven union brings together all the cosmic forces associated with fertility, fecundity, beauty, and power. The sacred and beautiful jewels associated with the four weaving sticks represent the colors of the four underworlds, through which the Holy People traversed on their way to their emergence to the surface of the earth. These four sacred jewels are also metaphorically associated with the cardinal directions, the four sacred mountains that enclose the Navajo universe in the shape of a diamond, and the particular types of animals, plants, winds, and Holy People who are associated with the cardinal directions and the sacred mountains. Reichard presents the entire picture as a chart of the creation of the Navajo universe in her book, Navaho Religion (1950: Chart I).
The act of weaving on Spider Woman's loom (the prototype of Navajo looms) metaphorically interweaves Navajo history with the male/female essences and forces of the cosmos that come together in woven compositions to express the Navajo concept of dynamic and regenerative cycles. These cycles are generated by the most powerful and the most sacred of all beings in the Navajo universe, the male Sa'ah Naagh‡i and the female Bik'eh H—zh—, about whom much more will be said later. The important point here for us to understand is that weaving, as taught by Spider Woman, is an act of universal integration and an artistic expression of holistic symmetry. It is not surprising that others have found the same sort of universal metaphors in the act and the art of weaving:
The picture of an interconnected cosmic web which emerges from modern atomic physics has been used extensively in the East to convey the mystical experience of nature. For the Hindus, Brahman is the unifying thread in the cosmic web, the ultimate ground of all being:
He on whom the sky, the earth, and the atmosphere
Are woven, and the wind, together with all life-breaths,
Him alone know as the one Soul.
In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamska Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way. . . The cosmic web, finally, plays a central role in Tantic Buddhism . . . The scriptures of this school are called the Tantras, a word whose Sanskrit root means 'to weave' and which refers to the interwovenness and interdependence of all things and events. (Capra 1975: 139).
Weaving is an act of creative transformation. Navajo women transform the wool from the backs of their sheep into abstract and symbolic designs that express a universal theme. This is done through the process of shearing, cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning, and weaving. Through this process, weaving becomes an activity with primordial roots and cosmic dimensions. On the loom, the weaver seeks to blend fine and bold contrasts in color, feature, and design into a single whole that is harmonious and beautiful, just as the Holy People did when they created the world. This is at the heart of the creative experience in Navajo culture. In each composition, the weaver seeks a personal and a unique expression of a universal theme. The personal transformation or reformulation of the world found in weaving is an exhilarating experience, and this experience -- even in small degrees -- is what primarily motivates most of the weavers.
The overall meaning or expression of a woven composition is not to be construed from a symbolic interpretation of individual design elements in the composition, many of which mean nothing by themselves; they assume their meaning as a part of a holistic composition. The complete composition is a unique and abstract rendering of h—zh—, incorporating and expressing the beauty, balance, harmony, and symmetry of the universe, as constructed by the Holy People in the beginning and as maintained by the People of the Earth's Surface (the Navajo) in the present. The compositions of Navajo weavers express, accentuate, and celebrate the inherent bipolar and quadrilateral symmetry of the universe.
The symmetry of Navajo weaving utilizes all three aspects of our visual perception. The symmetry of shape found in the motifs of Navajo woven compositions unify them into one-image formats. The high level of movement and activity found in Navajo woven compositions gives them their dynamic quality. The symmetry of color found in Navajo woven compositions provides a sense of balanced interaction. All of these aspects of Navajo symmetry combine to create a Navajo aesthetic style that we characterize as holistic symmetry.
A. The Symmetry of Image
ÒBilateral symmetry is the symmetry of left and right, which is so conspicuous in the structure of the higher animals, especially the human bodyÓ (Weyl 1952:3-4). This idea of bilateral symmetry suggests that the geometrical patterns prevalent in the universe provide us with our fundamental concepts of symmetry: left and right on a vertical axis, up and down on a horizontal axis. When vertical and horizontal symmetry occur in the same composition, the result is what we call quadrilateral symmetry (Plates 18-30). In quadrilateral symmetry, the top right quadrant could be cut out and could replace the bottom left quadrant. Likewise, the top left quadrants and the bottom right quadrant are also interchangeable. In the bilateral symmetry, this interchangeability of opposite quadrants is not possible.
The Plains Indians have built an entire cosmology based on the circle and the power of the center. Concentric organization is manifested in every dimension of their culture, social system, artistic creations, and the structure of the tipi and the pattern of organizing tipis into circles. The Pueblo Indians of the Southwest also organize their entire cultural and social systems around a center. In the case of the Tewa, it is a center of centers and the navel of navels. The creation stories of Zuni have their ancestors migrating all over the continent in search of the center of the world. Finally, after incalculable eons of time, the ancestors of the Zuni found the center of the world and located their permanent villages at this center. Interestingly, they located their villages only 15 miles from where geologists have determined the continental divide to be.
Quadrilateral symmetry has two axes that intersect to create a center. In the directional scheme of the Navajo and other Southwestern Indians, there are six directions and seven points: east, south, west, north, the zenith in the sky, the nadir in the earth, and the center. This spatial scheme is diagrammed in terms of its sequential development in Figures 5-9. In this scheme, one is always operating at the center of the universe, and one's life and experience are always organized around this center. The home and the place of emergence located at the center of the world demarcated by four sacred mountains also provide the Navajo with the power of the center in their lives.
Simple bilateral symmetry is somewhat static, but uneven proportions of images and compositions can take on a dynamic quality, the basis for the notion of the golden section that can be used to divide up an otherwise symmetrical composition into nearly even but not quite even proportions. Molnar claims that Òall the mathematical or geometrical theories of beauty have been based on the Golden NumberÓ (1966:206). This ratio has been identified as 8:5 by Arnheim (1966:218) and 1:1.16 by Herter (1966:167). The golden section is pleasing to the eye because it creates variety, tension, and dynamism through the phenomenon of unequal pairing.
Navajo weavers create dynamic symmetry by the use of motifs with unequal proportions in amounts similar to the Golden Ratio. The first example of this is the use of the rectangle instead of the square (see Figure 15). Navajo weavers rarely weave square rugs. The rectangular proportions tend to give dynamic qualities to the principal motifs, such as the triangle, the diamond, the hair bun, and the bow, illustrated in Figure 16, where each of these design motifs is slightly elongated in proportions comparable to the elongation of the rectangle over a perfectly proportioned square. These uneven proportions give these motifs their dynamic quality.
The reasons for these unequal proportions are natural as well as aesthetic. The first woven textiles of the Navajo were worn as blankets. A hole was left in the middle of these blankets for the head and neck to protrude, and the blanket was draped around the person. Because most people are taller than they are wide, it was natural to fit the blanket to the shape and contour of the erect body. Saddle blankets were made to fit the natural contours of the horse's back. With the advent of the rugs, a trend to squares could have developed but it never did for aesthetic reasons.
The dynamic and elongated diamond is found in Plate 24. Dynamic Born for the Water designs are shown in Plate 26. When these designs occur outside of weaving, they also generally occur in dynamic proportions. They are put on the staff of the Enemyway and on the bodies of the ritual impersonations of Monster Slayer and Born for the Water. These locations naturally lend themselves to the construction of these motifs in proportions that are longer vertically than they are horizontally.
Another way weavers add dynamic quality and accentuated activity to their compositions is by serrating or stepping the edges of the major design motifs in their compositions, illustrated in Plates 22, 24, and 25. The alternation of static and dynamic figures and colors is also used to make for an energized surface on a static background, illustrated in Plates 21 and 30. The alternation of positive and negative space by value contrasts is another way energy and activity is heightened (see Plates 30 and 31). Odd numbers of design motifs also give woven compositions of Navajo women their dynamic quality (Plate 30). In Navajo iconography, zig-zag lines are associated with lightning, and lightning is considered dynamic and powerful. Therefore, these zig-zag lines express dynamic movement and activity, illustrated in Plate 18.
All of the dynamic features of Navajo woven compositions discussed above are used to give these compositions energized surfaces full of activity and interaction. All of these aesthetic techniques are rarely if every employed in a single composition, but most are replete with many dynamic features. Good examples of multiple techniques of dynamism are illustrated in Plates 24, 25, 26, and 31.
Important to an understanding of the dynamism of Navajo symmetry is that the energy, the activity, and the movement of the compositions that are always balanced and under control. Despite the symmetrical surface structure of Navajo woven compositions, these compositions are full of energy and controlled activity.
B. The Symmetry of Movement and Space
Movement, activity, and process are concepts that are given broad and fundamental expression in Navajo language, art, and culture:
A Navajo premise that is significant and relevant . . . is that all matter and being have a dualistic nature: static and active. The assumption that underlies this dualistic aspect of all being and existence is that the world is in motion, that things are constantly undergoing processes of transformation, deformation, and restoration, and that the essence of life and being is movement. (Witherspoon 1977: 48).
The fundamental emphasis on movement and activity is illustrated in Navajo language in the dominance of the verb over other parts of speech. Various parts of speech are assimilated to the verbal system of Navajo through an elaborate prefix system. In addition, many nouns are simply nominalized verbs. The verb is the basic part of speech, and it expresses movement, action, and process.
In the summer of 1987, Witherspoon was an instructor at the American Indian Language Development Institute at Arizona State University. One of his classes consisted solely of Navajo and Apache speakers. Navajo and Apache are closely related languages, frequently categorized together as ÒSouthern Athapaskan.Ó In the Athapaskan lab session, we created the following sentence in Western Apache, which illustrates the primal importance of the verb in Navajo and Apache:
Na'ildiihii na'idiihii nayihildiihii nayildiih.
The word-by-word translation of this sentence is Òthe one who flies or pilots airplanes / the one that is flown / the one that he or she is purchasing / he or she will fly.Ó The free translation of this sentence is ÒThe pilot is going to fly the airplane that he or she is purchasing.Ó Every word in this sentence is a verb or a nominalized verb. Each verbal form varies in the object markers it utilizes. The prefix na and the stem diih are the same in all four words. The result is a complicated sentence that consists entirely of verbs, one regular verb and three nominalized verbs.
The emphasis on movement in Navajo language is also reflected in the prominent and extensive use of the verb Òto go.Ó In English and many other Indo-European languages, the verb Òto beÓ seems to be most prominent, but in Navajo the verb Òto goÓ is definitely the most important. In fact, by multiplying all of the various prefixes and prefix combinations that are used with the various modes of going, Witherspoon calculated that there are 362,000 distinct forms of the verb Òto goÓ in Navajo.
The most dynamic representation of spatial organization is found in movement rather than in static relationships. Colors and images that move horizontally express the horizontal dimension of space in a dynamic manner. Horizontal movement and space are expressed in Plate 23 by the triangular images arranged in horizontal rows. This plate also portrays spatial depth through figure/ground relationships. However, simple foregrounding does not convey movement and is basically a static representation of space. The dynamic representation of spatial depth can only be portrayed through dilating rhythm that emanates from or is drawn to a center point.
Plate 31 is an example of dynamic movement in space that is simultaneously vertical, horizontal, and deep. This is accomplished by the alternation of inner and outer forms with accompanying alternations in value and intensity. In this rug, the expanding and contracting diamond is not fully contained within the border as is typical of this regional style. Here it seems the artist is aware of what she has expressed in terms of dynamic movement and does not want this movement fully contained by the rectangular border.
Plate 31 expresses dynamic movement through space not only in the sense of simultaneously moving vertically, horizontally, and in depth, but also bidirectionally in terms of in and out. Depending on visual perspective, the movement is expanding or contracting, or is doing both simultaneously. Plate 31 portrays a very complex integration or synthesis of dynamic movement through space.
Not surprisingly, this synthetic representation of dynamic space should be accomplished by a female artist, because this kind of spatial movement is naturally exemplified in embryonic development, uterine dilation, birth, and organic growth. The contraction aspect of this movement is related to death and decay. There is a parallel here with some theories of physics and astronomy that see the universe as having originated from a primeval fireball of tremendous density in an explosive and expanding phase. The universe may now be in a contracting phase, or in alternations of expansion and contraction.
Plate 31 is an expression of the dynamic interrelationship of space and movement -- and maybe of time as well because the expansion and contraction suggests movement through time. Mildred Natoni, the artist who wove this rug, has shown how to visually integrate or synthesize time and space through dynamic, multidirectional movement.
C. The Symmetry of Color
In comparison to all the other visual elements of pictorial composition, color is the most contextual. Our perception of color is influenced significantly by its interaction with neighboring and background elements and colors. Shape and value contrasts are more insistent in our visual perception than is color. This is primarily because of to the physiology of perception and the composition of the retina.
In the retina are two types of photoreceptors of visual impulses: rods and cones, which chemically convert the visual impulses into electrical impulses that are transported to the brain via the optic nerve. These electrical impulses are synthesized in the brain to form a mental conception of that which was perceived. Three types of cones perceive color: one type of cone receives red, another type blue, and the third yellow. Green, which is a blend of yellow and blue, is perceived by the utilization of both the yellow and the blue photoreceptors. Value -- or gradations of black/white -- is registered through the rods in the retina. With 120 million rods per eye and only 6.7 million cones per eye, amounting to 18 times as many rods in the retina as cones, the perception of value contrasts tend to dominate color interaction in a pictorial composition (Wertenbaker 1981: 35-36).
In human perception, color has three properties: hue, value, and intensity. There are three primary hues: red, blue, and yellow, which are diagrammed in Figure 16. These hues are demarcated on a hue continuum, and they are equidistance from each other. Secondary hues fall in between these and are blends of the primary hues (see Figure 17). The midpoint of this color hexagram is grey. If an equal amount of pure red and pure green are mixed, grey results. The diametrical line from red to green in Figure 18 represents intensity. The closer one gets on this line to green, the more pure and more intense the green becomes. Intensity is a factor of how much or how little a color is mixed with hues on the opposite side of the color hexagram. Intensity is greatest at the edges of the wheel and is zero at the center of the wheel.
Intersecting this color wheel is the dimension of value, an expression of lightness or darkness. At the extremes of this value continuum are black and white, as represented in Figure 19. At the midpoint of the value continuum is grey, the same grey that is at the midpoint of the intensity dimension of the color wheel. Any color can be placed in this paradigm in terms of its hue, intensity and value. Within the variation of these three intersecting properties, an essentially infinite number of color possibilities exist. The human eye is thought to be able to distinguish about 10 million gradations of light or value and about 7 million shades of color.
The effect of color symmetry can be produced by a single unification of two bipolar hues. It can also be accomplished to a larger degree by unifying several bipolar colors. Hue basically divides into three bipolar pairs: red and blue, blue and yellow, yellow and red.
Plates 19 and 32 illustrate the principles and functions of color symmetry through the unification of red and yellow. Plates 19 and 23 illustrate the color symmetry of red and blue. Yellow and blue symmetry is rare in Navajo woven compositions. It does occur in the yellow/green combination around the borders of the rug on the title page of this book. The yellow/blue symmetry can be found in the paintings of Glen Peterson in Plate 32 called Images in Motion.
A higher level or a more complex pattern of color symmetry is achieved when all three of the primary colors are brought together in dynamic equilibrium, achieved in Navajo weaving in Plates 25 and 30. A similar achievement in color symmetry is attained when one primary hue is combined with a hue that is a blend of the other two primary hues. An example of this would be red and green, and such an accomplishment is found in Plates 25 and 28. Another example of this type of color symmetry is found in Plate 30, where yellow and violet are brought together in dynamic harmony.
The structure of color, however, is not limited to hue. Color has two more bipolar properties: intensity and value. Color symmetry, therefore, has two more aspects. The synthesis of contrasts in value is another aspect of color symmetry. If two extreme contrasts in value exist, such as black and white, the optical system tends to balance the value contrast by seeing grey (see Figure 19). Any hue of medium value, therefore, could be used to mediate a value contrast and achieve a value balance, as is done with red and green in Plate 28. Another example of value symmetry is achieved in the Chief Blankets in Plates 21 and 24 through the use of red to mediate the value contrast of black and white. This red appears as medium in value in the black white version of the composition presented here. The color red appears to many people as high in value when in fact it is medium and the illusion of highness in value is in reality the intensity or the purity of the red hue.
A rather dramatic example of value symmetry is found in Plate 31, though not entirely apparent from the black and white rendition of the composition presented here, in which the dark browns are contrasted by light beiges with reddish violet and tan mediating the value contrasts. The effect is a dilating rhythm that emanates from the center of the composition.
Symmetry in intensity occurs when a dull color backgrounds or surrounds an intense color. The effect of this backgrounding or surrounding heightens the light energy or luminosity of the intense color. An example of this is found in Plate 30, where the dull gray strains accentuate the intensity of the white and yellow triangles and Born for the Water shapes. In Navajo weaving, the reverse effect is often achieved. Navajo weavers frequently use dull colors in the foreground to heighten the intensity of dominant colors in the background. This is exemplified in Plate 27.
In the foregoing discussion, we have shown how the principle of symmetry as dynamic equilibrium applies to color organization and presentation. Because color is structured in terms of three intersecting bipolarities, color provides a nearly infinite number of visual organizational possibilities. In this way, color shares a common structural pattern and dynamic with all organic and inorganic form; that is, they all intersect or interact in three bipolar dimensions.
Color is especially useful as subject matter for the abstract artist because of its contextual and interactive nature. The ultimate in color symmetry is the harmonious and dynamic equilibrium of the bipolarities of hue, value and intensity. To this point, it is rare to achieve this advanced level of color symmetry in a single composition. The weaving in Plate 21 achieves dynamic symmetry in value and intensity but only partially in terms of hue. Plates 25 and 28 are the only ones that integrate all three types of color symmetry in a balanced and dynamic manner, but Plate 25 has a more dynamic organization in terms of motif and achieves a greater sense of holism through the power of center.
D. Holistic Symmetry
Holistic symmetry reduces compositional parts and integrates them into summative wholes. This is often achieved by the addition of repetitious parts that together form all-over patterns. Summative wholes and all-over patterns possess the qualities of simplicity, clarity, directness, and immediacy. Navajo woven compositions are generally summative, one-image formats. Even when quite complex and diverse, they are integrated, balanced, and harmonious. Nevertheless, there is variety in the degree to which woven compositions achieve holism, and there is a clear attempt to achieve holism in almost every woven composition, but some do not hold together as well as the weaver might have hoped or intended. The compositions we have presented in Plates 18-31 all achieve a high level of holism and are typical of Navajo weaving. The failure to achieve holism is atypical because integration, harmony and balance are fundamental in Navajo world view and are a major priority in Navajo art.
All the structural characteristics of image, movement, and color symmetry align with the principles of holistic symmetry, the visual condition in which interaction of all the field elements encourage the perception of only one summative image. It stresses simplicity and directness and projects the idea of Òholistic essence,Ó based on the synthesis of fundamental bipolarities. In Navajo art, the field forces consist of structurally juxtaposed spatial energies that are equalized and integrated into a dynamic whole.
Holistic symmetry is the manner in which the other three types of symmetry combine to provide a holistic format. A holistic composition is not just the sum of its parts but the compositional effect of the summative image. The loom on which the Navajo weaver composes represents the universe in microcosm. It came from Spider Woman, and each rug, blanket or tapestry woven on this loom is, in part, an individual and a unique expression of a universal theme, rendered by Navajo weavers in Navajo cultural motifs, but its underlying features can be found in a multitude of places and patterns. The features of this abstract theme may be best characterized in art as holistic symmetry.
Navajo weaving is concerned with unity and with the holistic formulation of patterns of change. The fundamental dimension of the Navajo universe is change, and the profound personality who embodies and expresses that change is Changing Woman. Her form is the diamond, based on a unification of asymmetrically oriented triangles, and it is She who represents and controls the underlying holistic symmetry of the Navajo world. Most Navajo woven compositions constitute metaphors for understanding the interwoven dynamics of a holistic and symmetrical universe in motion.
The holistic symmetry of Navajo art uses all three aspects of our visual perception: shape, motion, and color. The symmetry of shape found in the motifs of Navajo compositions unifies them into one-image formats. The symmetry of color found principally in Navajo sandpainting and weaving provides a sense of harmonious interaction. The high level of movement and activity found in Navajo visual arts enlivens them and gives them their dynamic quality. All of these aspects of Navajo art combine to create an aesthetic style that is dynamic, holistic, and symmetrical.
Silverwork uses primarily curvilinear shapes and lines, while weaving, by technical restriction, uses primarily rectilinear shapes and lines. Sandpaintings use both curvilinear and rectilinear shapes and lines. In sandpaintings, the curvilinear shapes and lines usually portray organic and concrete forms and entities, while the rectilinear shapes and lines portray abstract order and cosmic symmetry. Sandpaintings thus integrate the inner and the outer, the conceptual and the concrete, the organic and the imagined, the idea and the entity, the natural and the cultural.
Holistic symmetry is accomplished in Navajo art largely through the power of the center to focus, to integrate, and to harmonize contrasting yet complementary elements into summative wholes that are seen as one-image formats. This powerful centering effect is obvious in sandpainting, but may not be as obvious in weaving and silverwork; however, it is very much a dimension of these art forms as well.
Before Navajo weavers started weaving rugs and tapestries for a non-Navajo clientele, Navajos wove blankets for use as clothing. In the middle of these woven compositions, a hole was left for the head of the wearer to protrude. This opening in the center is quite apparent in the composition in Plate 19. These blankets put the center of the person into the center of the garment, surrounding the wearer with the dynamic and holistic symmetrical elements of the compositions.
Navajo jewelry is also made to be worn, and jewelry is the one art form that the Navajo do keep, cherish and use for personal adornment. These compositions are also centered not only by powerful center elements and motifs around which they are composed, but they are also centered on the persons who wear them. The necklace has its prominent element at its base, which when worn is centered in the upper chest, just over the heart. The concho belts are centered on the buckle at the center of the abdomen. Even the wrist guards and the wrist bracelets center the appendages at the junction of the hand and the arm. Hat bands are centered on the forehead. The pins and buttons are also usually centered on the persons who wear them.
Centering these art forms on and to the person who wears them tends to make the jewelry and the blankets extensions of the person, just as sandpainting makes the patient an integral part of the world portrayed. The transparency of most of the silver work pieces and the head openings on the blankets tend to integrate them with and make them an extension of the person who wears them, just as the transparency of the sandpaintings make the earth below part and parcel of the painting. Thus, these art forms are not only visually holistic, but they also make the environment and the person part of the whole through the power of the center to control, to focus, and to synthesize -- integrating multidimensional, symmetrical wholes that are visual metaphors of the cosmos in concert.