The International Folk Art Market seeks to foster economic and cultural sustainability for folk artists and create intercultural exchange opportunities
Published July/August 2014

A Change of Art

Rich with culture and tradition, Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market continues to influence lives around the world

BYTeresa Bitler
At first glance, the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, N.M., looks like any other arts fair. Crowds meander through white-tented pavilions, pausing at tables to consider wood sculptures, ceramics, rugs, hand-painted greeting cards, and other crafts. Music from the nearby stage sets an upbeat tempo as an enthusiastic artist describes his work to a customer. In the booth next to him, another artist hunches over her paints, oblivious to the constant stream of people around her.
 
But as you take in the scene, you begin to realize that this event isn’t your typical arts fair. The folk artists, more than 150 from 60 countries, wear the traditional attire of their native lands. Some have never been on an airplane before their flight to Santa Fe, and many require translators. The music you hear isn’t a lineup of local bands — it’s Tuvan throat singing, Andean flute music, and West African rhythms. Dancers in bright costumes take the stage in performances not often seen in the United States while food vendors serve such exotic fare as Ethiopian lamb stew — in addition to barbecue and ice cream. 
 
And unlike most arts fairs, this one changes lives. 
 
“Many of the market artists come from developing countries, where per capita annual incomes are less than $3 a day,” says Judy Espinar, who founded the International Folk Art Market in 2004. “They grapple daily with political, social, and environmental challenges in their home countries.”
 
Espinar’s vision was to connect traditional folk artists with a wider audience than they could reach in their homelands. 
 
“When you buy a piece of art, some selling for as little as $10, you impact that artist’s life and the lives of his or her children, neighbors, and community,” she says. “Your purchase — 90 percent of which will go home with the artist or his organization — builds homes and hospitals, sends children to college, provides clean water, and even starts microloan programs.” 
 
An Art History Lesson
Janet Nkubana and her sister, Joy Ndunguste, grew up surrounded by extreme poverty and hunger in a Ugandan refugee camp in the 1990s. When they returned to Rwanda to open a hotel, they found their native land wasn’t much better off. According to Nkubana, nearly 70 percent of Rwanda’s population consisted of women widowed in the devastating 1994 genocide, and these impoverished women and their children began asking the sisters for help.  
    
 
Rooted in tradition, folk art expresses cultural identity through shared community values and aesthetics
Rooted in tradition, folk art expresses cultural identity through shared community values and aesthetics
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