Traditional Native American basket weaving craft and contemporary architecture and design collide in the new exhibition, Meeting the Clouds Halfway, now on at Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson. The show, located in MOCA’s Great Hall, is a collaboration between Tohono O’odham basket weaver Terrol Dew Johnson and Tucson and New York-based architects Aranda\Lasch (Ben Aranda and Chris Lasch).
Meeting the Clouds Halfway features over two dozen sculptural objects, taking its inspiration from a number of sources, including the Tohono O’odham people’s mesmerizing basket weaving practice known as “coiling,” Tucson’s surrounding desert, digital technology, and modern architecture. These combinations yield amorphous objects that have an almost organic appearance, as if natural forms are fusing with digital algorithms.
“We’re connecting the weaving practices of the Native American tradition to our practice as architects because we believe they share the same foundations,” Ben Aranda tells The Creators Project. “Weaving is a material practice performed through ritual. It is an iterative and social activity and through repetition it forms pattern and structure in simple materials to yield complex cultural artifacts. Architecture can be understood in much the same way.”
Aranda explains that the seeds of Meeting the Clouds Halfway were planted ten years back when Aranda\Lasch started researching how material practices like weaving could inform their architectural design. Lasch had visited the National Museum of the American Indian, where he saw one of Terrol Dew Johnson’s baskets, which are innovative but still reference the Tohono O’odham tribe’s traditions.
Lasch subsequently reached out to Johnson to see if he would collaborate on an upcoming gallery show at Artists Space, which they called Rules of Exchange. The collaborators then created a number of experimental baskets that combined Aranda\Lasch’s interest in rule-based systems (using the computer) with Johnson’s material practice of weaving.
MOCA Tucson eventually acquired these baskets because of the early combination of craft and digital technology. Ten years later the museum invited Aranda\Lasch to put together a solo show, and in turn the architects asked Johnson to make baskets. The show’s title, as Johnson tells The Creators Project, comes from the Tohono O’odham’s practice of using long picking-sticks made of the inner ribs of the towering saguaro cactus to harvest the same cactus’ ruby red fruit.
“Reaching up into the sky, the kuipad would ‘pull down the clouds’ and help bring rain to the arid Sonoran Desert,” Johnson explains. “This intersection between the People of the Desert and the clouds was mediated by the kuipad, a tool made of natural materials.”
“In Meeting the Clouds Halfway we explore the intersection between people and nature, the natural fibers of the desert and modern material created by people,” he adds. “These creations are a combination of the old ways and new visions. Together, they are meeting the clouds halfway.”
Johnson’s work is inspired by coiling, the Tohono O’odham tribe’s traditional method of weaving. The process begins with one central point around which the material is wound, creating an outward and upward spiral of concentric circles. Modest in expression, the basket’s color is earthy, as it's derived from natural materials, while the patterns and the shape itself are abstract profiles of desert plants.
For this reason, Aranda, Lasch, and Johnson used materials found in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona—grass, copper, wood, and rock. They also decided early on that they would coil three-dimensionally so that they could create more open structures. They built jigs that allowed them to coil spatially so the baskets appear like “looping lines in space.”
“Many works in the show are built around this three dimensional coil, a form both practical and symbolic,” Aranda says. “For the Tohono O’odham tribe, baskets employ coiling as a structural strategy to create a functional object, but also as a ritual which connects the maker to the community, their elders, and the desert.”
Coiling allowed the three to “evolve” a basket to a table and to a larger architectural structure as long as the structural principle was shared. The 27 new objects in the show include baskets, furniture, and prototypical building structures.
“With Terrol we proposed prototypes for desert structures needed out there, namely a seed bank, a desert shelter, an Olas Ki (or ceremonial hut), and an event canopy or bandshell,” Aranda explains. “The idea was to show how baskets, which are formed from desert materials in our hands, can consider solutions for issues of shelter, agriculture, and the environment.”
But with atrocities ongoing at Standing Rock, Aranda wants to point out something important about the many challenges that Native communities like the Tohono O’Odham: these communities lack access to many of the things the rest of the country takes for granted.
“They create inspiring talents like Terrol Dew Johnson, whose artistic output and activistism create an awareness of their rich culture as well as the challenging issues they face,” says Aranda. “Basket weaving is one part of Terrol’s wider practice that integrates creativity, community organizing, health and cultural education. As an example, Terrol goes on walks in the desert to find materials for his baskets, which is part of the weaver’s foraging tradition.”
Johnson even extended this tradition back in 2009 with a walking journey from Maine to Arizona as part of “The Walk Home: A Journey to Native Wellness,” an awareness campaign for the crisis of diabetes in Native communities. Johnson also runs a grassroots community organization called Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), which is dedicated to creating programs based in the O’odham Himdag (the Desert People’s Way).
“As architects we are inspired by all this,” says Aranda. “How to conjure something from the desert, how to hold tradition from one generation to the next but still invent, and how to demand beauty from a demanding context. He really motivates us.”
Meeting the Clouds Halfway is open to the public until January 29, 2017 at MOCA Tucson. Click here to see more on Tohono O’odham basket weaving, and here to see more of Aranda\Lasch’s architecture and design work.
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