The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market
Changing the world, one artist at a time
Some of the guests at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market are unknowns from rural areas who will board planes for the very first time to reach New Mexico. Others are world-renowned rockstars in their field.
All get to spend an invigorating week communing with each other, sharing craft ideas and artistic visions. If it weren’t for the market, most of them would probably never meet or even know of each other’s existence. Karin Le Roux, a craft developer from Namibia, savors the energy and solidarity she has felt at the market. “There’s just this lovely camaraderie between people from all around the world,” she says. “It’s very special. I’ve never experienced anything like this, ever.”
The majority of these artisans come from developing countries, and their crafts are the only source of income for themselves and their families. Last year, the nonprofit market says it generated more than 2 million dollars in sales, 90 percent of which was taken home by the artisans. Many of them are organizers who have created poverty-alleviating programs in their home countries. They teach others to make handicrafts, giving them a means to earn an income. Some use their market revenue to help support their families for the rest of the year
Shoppers won’t find grandma’s doilies or puffy paint sweatshirts, but exotic, high-quality goods. Sequined Vodou flags from Haiti, woven baskets from Rwanda, beaded jewelry from Kenya―these are just a few items attainable at the eighth annual market. Even fashion house representatives make the trip to the market, from every corner of the world, to collect handicrafts and ideas. Last year, dignitaries from South Africa, Cuba and Oman made an appearance. The Santa Fe International Folk Art Market is one of the largest events of its kind. It’s also a global humanitarian happening.
The Alibi spoke with three featured artists by phone about their histories, the handicrafts they’re bringing and the effect of their work on their communities.
When long-standing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples in Rwanda began simmering to a violent turmoil, Janet Nkubana’s parents fled to a refugee camp in Uganda. It was here that Nkubana spent her childhood, learning to weave baskets alongside her mother. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed at least 800,000 people, she returned to her native country. She began selling her baskets and teaching other women to weave. It was a source of income and a way to bring women together—from both sides of the conflict—and empower them. She helped the women organize into a cooperative, Gahaya Links, which is bolstering social and economic development in Rwanda.
Gahaya Links now includes 52 cooperatives, comprised of more than 4,000 women. This is Nkubana’s fourth year attending the Santa Fe market, and she says each time she gives a different cooperative the opportunity to come.
“When we started, when I went back to Rwanda, we were five women,” she says by phone. “And then we kept growing, growing ... it was like a burning bush.” Even now, she says, there’s a steady stream of women who join her network. “We have women living with HIV who were raped during the war, women who got HIV in the normal way. We have women who are widows. We have women with husbands in prison,” she says. “So our cooperative has a motif of saying we are one, under one sky, and our common value is in our hands.”
Throughout her childhood in the refugee camp, Nkubana’s parents and other Rwandan natives kept their culture and language alive. Her father, she says, used to talk proudly of being Rwandan. She also remembers how difficult school was for her and other refugee children, who were often ostracized. “They would call you all sorts of names that would really hurt your feelings,” she says. “So those moments would really push you to think that, When would I have a home?” When Nkubana left Uganda there was never a question of where she would go. “When the war ended, we were looking forward to going to our roots, to where we belonged,” she says, “where we could practice our culture, where you could speak your language freely.”
She was by then a single mother trying to make a new life in a difficult country. For a while she worked in a small hotel, weaving baskets on the side for extra income. When the hotel closed and she lost her job, Nkubana had nowhere to turn but her art form. “You know it was pretty challenging when I started weaving as a full-time job,” she says. “It was hard, of course. Sometimes you don’t have even money.”
The United States Embassy in Rwanda helped turn her luck. Employees saw Nkubana’s baskets and let her set up a small display in the embassy, exposing tourists to her work. Humanitarian business people with an arts interest began helping Nkubana get United States buyers for her baskets, and one—Willa Shalit—secured an order from Macy’s. The large demand led Nkubana to recruit women from across Rwanda to join her collective.
“I became the voice of the voiceless.”
“We’d go to community grassroots leaders and say, We want to meet with the women here. You know, we moved around the country,” she says, “because I knew all the women in Rwanda know how to make baskets.” Women flocked to the work. The income was, and still is, the only source of income for them and their families. Nkubana says it has economically empowered women, which has never been the case before. “Women were left in the backyard. They were hesitant to interact with men. But this time we are coming up front because we are the bread earners of our families.”
Nkubana credits the baskets with helping to facilitate peace between people in her country. One lady in her group had 65 members of her family killed during the genocide. She was the only one left. In the same weaving group was the wife of one of the murderers. At first the women worked in silence. Many survivors were angry and couldn’t bear to meet the wives or children of those who killed their families, Nkubana says. Other women, whose husbands committed atrocities, were ashamed to be included in the community. “We went beyond that,” she says, “and we said, We are women, we have children. Our common problem is poverty. Our common issue we have is, how do we keep our families? Let us sit here and make baskets.”
She would tell the weavers that they didn’t need to talk to one another, that they just needed to work—but it would be easier if they sat together and shared ideas. “Who understands better quality?” she would ask. “You look at her basket and improve on your quality.” As time went on, the barriers began to break. “One would say, Oh can I borrow your scissors to cut my thread? And that would start a conversation,” she remembers. “Another one would say, Oh, my weaving material is finished, let me rush home. And then another one says, No, don’t worry, you can bring it tomorrow, use mine.” The women were learning how to let go of the past and forgive each other.
The reconciliatory symbolism of the basket spread. Traditionally called an agaseke, it is now widely known as a “peace basket.” It appears on Rwandan currency, and even on the country’s flag. Nkubana was just notified that the government of Rwanda is presenting Gahaya Links with an award for advancing the country’s cultural arts.
Even with all the extraordinary accomplishments, Nkubana doesn’t think of herself as a hero. “You know, I am an ordinary woman,” she says. “I don’t feel anything because it’s not my own achievement alone. It is a collective effort of all of us.” She believes her humble beginnings are a big part of who she is now. The other women easily relate to her, as she does to them. “I don’t feel superior to anybody ... I don’t feel big about myself.”
There is one thing she is proud of, though. “I became the voice of the voiceless,” she says. “I can celebrate it: that women of Rwanda, the weavers of Rwanda, the artisans of Rwanda, can not go on the street to beg. They earn their bread through their hands. And really, that one I could say I feel great about it.”
Karin Le Roux
Karin Le Roux finds artisans by visiting communities and doing what she calls an “audit.” “I would look at what skills are there, what resources are there,” she says. “Resources in terms of, Are there post offices, is there money, is there transport?”
Le Roux is the director of the Omba Arts Trust in her native Namibia. The trust is a nonprofit organization working to alleviate poverty and create jobs through crafts. It’s based in the country’s capital, Windhoek, but Le Roux works primarily with producers and artists in rural regions. And unlike other artisan collectives, Le Roux says she’s careful to look for items that already exist within the people’s cultural base. “I just think it’s more honest and the work just stands out more.”
courtesy of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and the artist
An example are the PVC pipe bracelets Le Roux is bringing to this year’s market. Simulating bone or ivory, the bracelets are etched with intricate patterns and partially colored dark brown or black―they don’t look like plastic. Although the bracelets are traditionally made by men, Le Roux has noticed that women wear the bracelets throughout northern and eastern Namibia. “They’re fun and they’re funky,” she says. “But people wear them. Local language groups, they actually wear them. It’s not just for an open market.” Le Roux and Omba Arts help the artists develop their designs and sell their work, and she says they have done incredibly well.
Le Roux had the flash of insight that would lead to her founding the nonprofit nearly 20 years ago. At the time, she was working for a development organization in an adult education center. “That was just around the time of independence” for Namibia, she says. “I realized that actually there’re lots of skills in the country. It’s just a case of harnessing those skills, helping people develop products.” One of her first successes happened along the Okavango River. The organization Le Roux worked for was developing agricultural projects, and the local chief asked that some kind of program be implemented for the region’s women. Le Roux made a trip north.
“I went up and I went from homestead to homestead, just having a look at material culture, what people used,” she says. “And there were all these baskets that they used in an agricultural context, and the palm was available in the area.” She began to help the women hone their basket weaving artistry by organizing workshops and competitions. She ordered new dyes and made subtle suggestions while allowing their design process to develop organically. Women of the region have always woven dark palm onto a white background. When Le Roux mentioned they could try light colors on a dark background, creativity blossomed. She says the weavers began to experiment with different colors and stitches, eventually producing one-of-a-kind, finely woven baskets.
“I realized that actually there’re lots of skills in the country. It’s just a case of harnessing those skills, helping people develop products.”
Ever since her first trip to the market in 2010, Le Roux has been excited to return. “I loved New Mexico,” she says, adding that the market staff and volunteers also impressed her. “Both my colleague and I just couldn’t believe this generosity and spirit, all these people who just spent their time helping us, it’s just amazing.”
This year a weaver from the Okavango region, Christina Ndindi, will join her in Santa Fe. “She never traveled out of Namibia,” Le Roux says. “She’s never been on an airplane.” Ndindi makes baskets, teaches basket weaving and is an art buyer. Coming to the market will be incredible exposure for her, Le Roux says, as well as a fantastic opportunity to see handicrafts from around the world. “We live in isolated communities,” Le Roux says. “And I think it’s really good to see what people are making around the world.”
courtesy of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and the artist
Firdose Ahmad Jan
With heavily accented but excellent English, Firdose Ahmad Jan describes how the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market affects his tiny, hillside village in Kashmir, India. “It changed my life so much,” he says softly. “Not only my life personally but my community is also involved ... the families there have been very uplifted.”
Firdose has been to the market twice, accompanying his father, Bashir Ahmad Jan. Both are master weavers and embroiderers, creating intricate designs on shawls with a fine needlepoint technique known as sozni. His family has been passing down the skill for generations. “Kashmir was ruled by so many kings,” Firdose says. “In every regime they have a different design. So in the Dogra regime, one of my forefathers was the best weaver. And he weaved shawls worn only by the kings of that time.” Firdose’s father continues the tradition of excellence. In 2001, Bashir was awarded the UNESCO Crafts Prize. India’s Ministry of Textiles presented him its national award.
courtesy of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and the artist
They don’t just display their own work at the market. The father and son collect embroidered shawls from all the artisans of their community, then bring them to the United States to sell. They represent their whole village, but Firdose says people may not realize it. “One boy and one old man is there, but if you’d come and see the whole picture, you’re supporting 150 families.” It might also come as a surprise that almost all the embroidery, delicate and floral, is done by men. It’s not unheard of for Kashmiri women to do some of the embroidery, but it’s rare. There is the general belief in Kashmir that women’s hands are rough from working in the kitchen, he says, and an embroiderer needs soft hands. “Woman is also working with men,” he says. “But mostly women are best in the stiffening.” He refers to the process of turning the raw wool, from Pashmina goats, into luxuriously soft yarn.
Getting to Santa Fe is a huge journey for the Jans. “It’s really difficult,” Firdose says. “Last year there was terrible turmoil in Kashmir, curfews and shutdowns.” He says it took him 12 hours to travel the 10 kilometers from home to the airport. Once there, he had to go to Delhi—there are no international flights out of Kashmir—and then on from there. “Also to get a visa for this country is difficult for us,” he says. “I think because being a Kashmiri you’re living in a troubled state, so it will always be a trouble to get a visa.” The first year he was invited to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, he wasn’t able to attend. His first visa application was pending for two years before it was granted. “It was like torture for me,” he says.
“One boy and one old man is there, but if you’d come and see the whole picture, you’re supporting 150 families.”
The struggles are worth it for him, though. He credits the staff and volunteers of the market with keeping art and traditions alive. “The people of New Mexico are very warm, they’re very nice, and the behavior and the language are so nice.” His father agrees. The year Firdose couldn’t come, Bashir—who speaks Kashmiri and knows no English—came alone. The people in Santa Fe understood him anyway, says Firdose. He says they helped him through everything and cared for him exquisitely. When Bashir returned to Kashmir, he gushed to his son. “In the Quran we say when a man dies, if he is good he will ascend to heaven, if he is bad he will descend to hell,” Firdose says. “And in heaven you find angels. Dad said, ‘I don’t need to go to heaven now, I have seen the heaven and angels.’ ”
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