On a beautiful New Mexico hill top, under an electrifying summer dry lightning storm, the world’s cultures united to lift each other up. Once a year, Santa Fe New Mexico hosts the International Folk Art Market (IFAA). This is no ordinary Folk Art show or shopping experience. This is juried event of the world’s best artisans to showcase their Culture, their Countries and yes, their artistic talents.
UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific, and Culture Organization) was an early sponsor of the IFAA. It is the world’s largest gathering of its kind. This year 150 artists from 62 countries were chosen to exhibit. Many of the artists are the spokespeople for artist collectives in countries that are undergoing incredible social, political and environmental challenges. The average wage for some of the participants is less than $3.00 a day. In the three days of the International Folk Art Fair, these artists will keep 90% of what they earn and return home with a year’s worth of their creativity and sweat neatly folded in their wallets.
Since the inception of the International Folk Art Fair, the artists have transformed thousands of artisan families in their home countries with earnings from the fair. This is no chicken feed, collective earnings over the 10+ years of the fair is estimated at over $19 million dollars.
The quality of the art is undeniable. Excellence, ingenuity like beautiful creations made out of Haitian Steel Drums or fine flower bouquets out of hand died Horse Hair, incredible jewelry, ceramics and clothing. These unique creations are made with ancient techniques, keeping these artisanal secrets alive.
Collectors, shoppers and people of conscience flock to this 3 day sold out event to participant in the true mission of the market. A mission that reminds us that what still matters most is people connecting to people.
We had barely entered the first of the many exhibition tents when a beautiful woman reached out to me as I strolled by her booth. “Come talk to me”, she said in stilting English. Our eyes connected. How could I refuse? “Let me show you” and she lifted a beautiful ornament intricately painted with tiny deer and fine lines. Then she rolled it to reveal her pallets were hollowed out Chicken, Duck and Ostrich eggs. How the human hand could be so steady to paint on these curved objects was a wonder unto itself. She was dressed in her traditional regional costume from western Ukraine. “I hope you like. Please buy one. Things are very bad in Ukraine today”. She had not strung a lot of words together, but she had communicated a powerful statement. I took my time choosing a teal and white work of beauty and she wrapped my delicate treasure in a paper towel and inserted it in a plastic cup to protect it. I was honored to be the owner of this little gem. She was grateful.
We continued on shuffling through the crowded pathways, awed by the tribal and regional clothing of each artisan. The texture, functionality and colors of their garments a show unto its own.
We came upon the Palestinian booth. A volunteer in a Yellow shirt waved me to see handcrafted embroidered bags and textiles. “Is the artist here”, I asked. “Unfortunately not and we are all devastated. The border between Palestine and Israel was sealed just as she was heading to catch her plane, so she was not allowed to leave. She had a years’ worth of her wares with her. “Suddenly daily news events had a personal price that I could feel.
There was vibrantly colored beadwork from Sudan that caught our eyes. As I touched and studied the individual pieces, a vivacious blond woman talked over my shoulder. “Sorry, I probably scared you, but aren’t these amazing pieces.” I assumed she was another admirer. She pointed to pictures on the wall of the pitch black bone-thin beauties that created these masterpieces. She explained, “They are the works of The Roots Project artist of Southern Sudan. These are woman that know how to “Fish” but didn’t know where to “Sell their Fish”. I was visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Southern Sudan “and she pointed to one of the luminous portraits on the wall. “Knowing all the blessings our family has received in our lifetime, how could we come back to the U.S. and not do something to help these women be more self-sufficient, so we started The Roots Project.” I asked, ”Is your Daughter-in-Law or the other artists here?” “No, but by their own choice. It costs $5,000 dollars to bring one of them here. The Roots Project members took a vote and voted to keep that money in the business. It is enough to pay sixty women a month’s wages and support their families. More importantly with the amazing level of violence, they prefer to stay home and protect their families” This American woman and her family are playing a critical role in helping the artisans of The Roots Project to be self-sufficient.
Pottery, Jewelry, Textiles, Metal work were all about us as we continued through the tents. I was drawn to some beautiful, colorful leather purses displayed on a wall. A volunteer began to explain to me they were the works of the Nomadic Tuareg tribe of the Saharan Desert in Northern Africa. The booth was supported by Moussa who looked like he had just stepped out of an Indian Jones movie. He is an amazing silversmith and jewelry maker. His sister Haoua remains with the tribe, traveling across the modern country borders of Northern Africa while creating her art as they journey with nothing more than goat leather, natural mixed dyes and stories that are passed on in leather imagery. They have formed an artist collective known as La Cooperative Tawre. I shared with Moussa that for much of my life I had lived a nomadic and unanchored existence as well. “Why would you want to live any other way?!” He exclaimed, and I agreed. Almost in unison we both said, “It’s addictive”. And there was our bond, this giant Nomad from ancient times, and me the diminutive modern digital nomad.
We listened to the amazing string music of a musician from Madagascar, laughed with an old man from Egypt that wanted his picture taken on his smart phone with us and indulged in the tasty regional delights of Mango Margaritas, Malaysia Chicken Satay and Lobster Mac N Cheese all offered generously during the opening night party.
Collectors and admirers pay to attend the Opening Night Party to celebrate the mission and have first chance at the artist’s wares. This is a classy event with a casual, fun vibe of celebration of how beautiful the mankind as a species really can be.
The International Folk Art Festival has something for everyone, but you must plan in advance. Buyers from around the world flock to this annual gathering. Opening night is costly but tax deductible and the money supports the International Folk Art Alliance. Saturday morning offers a less expensive option for committed shoppers with the Early Bird hours before the general public can pay to come. Depending on when you attend your admission can vary from $15 to $175 per person. Free shuttle busses bring attendees with tickets up to Museum Hill making parking easy at the two bus stops in town, South Capitol Train Station and Pera parking near the State Capitol building. A bonus is that two of the museums on Museum Hill, The Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Museum of International Folk Art are open for free during the Market to all attendees.
Meeting the artists and the committed individuals that sponsor their long journey to the market is the treasure all attendees take away.
If you love world cultures, art, and beauty and want to feel good about how you spend your money, there is no better combination then planning to attend the International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe each July. Plan ahead because all three days always sell out well in advance.