A Change of Art

Rich with culture and tradition, Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market continues to influence lives around the world
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.  
    
 
At first, Nkubana shared what she could, and the families gratefully accepted. But eventually, the women brought Nkubana traditional agaseke baskets woven from sisal, raffia, and sweet grass in exchange for her assistance. That gave Nkubana an idea. She opened a small gift shop in the hotel where the women could sell their baskets and earn a living. This successful venture prompted the sisters, along with 20 to 30 women, to form the Gahaya Links weaving cooperative. Today, there are more than 4,000 members — including 300-plus men — organized across 52 savings cooperatives. 
 
The International Folk Art Market is one of Gahaya Links’ major outlets. Nkubana says the weavers’ income has enabled them to purchase basic necessities such as food, clothes, and blankets; send their older children to school; buy health insurance; and for the first time, save money. Some even pooled their savings to build 25 small houses for their neighbors, while others, emboldened by their new self-confidence, became community leaders.
 
But perhaps even more significant than the income is the healing that the baskets have fostered. Amid a divided Rwanda, Nkubana brought both sides — the Hutu and the Tutsi — together under one roof and told them, “Don’t we breathe the same air? Speak the same language? Don’t we all love our children? Let us just weave and try to put the past behind us.”
 
Nkubana credits the demand created by the International Folk Art Market with facilitating the healing and, as a result, improving the lives of countless Rwandan women. “I want to encourage every supporter of the International Folk Art Market,” she says. “They see a few of us here, but they have impacted thousands and thousands of lives.”
 
Rangina Hamidi tells a similar story of the market’s impact. When Hamidi was 4 years old, her family fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion, heading first to Pakistan and then the United States. 
 
In July 2002, she returned to Afghanistan to help women and founded Kandahar Treasure, the first woman-run business in Hamidi’s hometown of Kandahar. Hamidi’s employees earn a salary creating finely embroidered elaborate designs on bright textiles — an art form called khamak. 
Besides helping to fund literacy programs, healthcare, and grassroots political training, the funds generated by Kandahar Treasure have made a huge impact on the lives of these women. Young widows raising small children and women fleeing from abusive situations can now live independent lives as a result of the income they earn from the embroidery. 
 
Preserving the Past
In addition to benefiting the artists and their communities, the market also helps keep traditional arts and culture alive. Artist Aboubakar Sidiki Fofana spins and weaves cotton and linen by hand, then uses a method of indigo dyeing that dates back to 11th-century Mali to color his textiles. Rado Herivonona Ambinintsoa employs centuries-old techniques to weave her fabric on eucalyptus looms in the highlands of Madagascar. Elsewhere, Magdalena Pedro Martinez forms ceramic figurines dressed in traditional trajes (costumes) in danger of being lost. And Mikio Toki creates colorfully illustrated Edo kites in the manner taught to him by an elderly Japanese kite master. These are just a few examples.
 
“A big part of what I do is education,” says weaver Porfirio Gutierrez of Oaxaca, Mexico, who uses natural, time-honored methods to dye his textiles. “This market is a great place to educate people and share with them something that has been in my family for 2,000 years.”
    
A Global Success
Espinar hoped the International Folk Art Market, which she expected to be a one-time event, would help to preserve culture and tradition by generating interest in folk art. Yet, it exceeded her expectations. The first year, she anticipated 3,000 attendees; nearly 12,000 people showed up, and many of the artists sold out the first day. With the market now in its 11th year, the main draw, according to Espinar, is the quality of the art and its authenticity. 
 
“People want what is real, and this is the only place in the world where you will find so many authentic works and artists in one place at one time,” she says. “It would take a lifetime of travel to find and buy the exceptional folk art treasures that are readily available at the market.”
 
Even better, you know that your purchases are making a difference. A mother can now afford medication for her sick child in Somalia, a father in Ecuador can build a home for his family, and a weaver in Mexico can pass on his skills to the next generation because there’s an interest in, and an outlet for, his textiles. 
 
And that’s exactly what makes the International Folk Art Market unlike any other.