© Jim Arndt. All rights reserved.

Intercultural Exchange at the International Folk Art Market

Now in its twelfth year, Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market (IFAM) is the largest event of its kind in the world. Since its inception, roughly 750 international artists from over 90 countries have made the journey to Santa Fe for the three-day fair, selling a broad range of work—from bird-shaped metal scissors from Afghanistan to beaded lion figurines from South Africa. Sales in 2014 topped $3 million, and artists take home 90% of every transaction.

Under the tent Photo © Michael Benanav

Under the tent.
Photo © Michael Benanav

This year, IFAM spanned a weekend in the middle of July, and I made two visits: on Friday, July 10th, for the opening night gala, and again on Sunday the 12th; nevertheless, I was still unable to see all that the event had to offer. IFAM is a sprawling affair, with dozens of booths spread out across the large Milner Plaza courtyard that’s central to Santa Fe’s Museum Hill complex, a space occupied by the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the Wheelwright Museum.

IFAM was founded in 2004 with a mission to “foster economic and cultural sustainability for folk artists and folk art worldwide and to create intercultural exchange opportunities that unite the peoples of the world.” Santa Fe seems an especially fitting host; it’s the United States’ oldest capitol city, and its rich concentrations of cultures—and relatively ancient history—has undoubtedly contributed to its status as one of the country’s dominant arts destinations. The city boasts one of the highest percentages of artists in the work force, with creative industries supplying 17% of jobs in Santa Fe County. IFAM was the brainchild of four Santafeans with deep roots in the arts: Thomas Aageson, the executive director of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation and former head of Aid to Artisans; Charmay Allred, an art enthusiast and local philanthropist; businesswoman Judith Espinar; and Charlene Cerny, a past Director of Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art. In its first year, IFAM’s roster included 60 artists, and today that number has nearly tripled. IFAM is organized by the International Folk Art Alliance (IFAA), which works with folk artists around the year, assisting with travelling arrangements and marketing efforts, and even offering training in business management. Executive Director of IFAA Shawn Ruggiero has said, “Our responsibility is to listen to the artists, and what they are telling us is that they need more opportunities to sell their work.” The organization’s online store addresses this aim by making the purchase of artworks, and, correspondingly, the support of artists, possible year-round. IFAM is backed not only by the State of New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, but also by sponsors like UNESCO, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and hundreds of individual volunteers.

The Market artists come together on Museum Hill at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.  Photo © Marc Romanelli, 2009

The Market artists come together on Museum Hill at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.
Photo © Marc Romanelli, 2009

There’s something magical about seeing representatives of so many nations brought together in one place, showcasing beautifully original, one-of-a-kind works of art. This is a celebration not just of artistry but also of humanity. By their very nature, folk artists have deep roots in community, utilizing age-old methods and family histories to create uniquely specialized crafts. Despite an absence of formal training, or maybe because of it, the artwork on view is particularly striking for its natural, un-fussy beauty. Everything is hand-made and bears witness to the artist’s imprint and interpretation.

Elhadji Mohamed (aka Elhadji Koumama), Tuareg jeweler from Niger.   Photo © Christian Peacock and courtesy of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Elhadji Mohamed (aka Elhadji Koumama), Tuareg jeweler from Niger.
Photo © Christian Peacock and courtesy of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Elhadji Koumama, taureg jeweler from Niger

Elhadji Koumama, taureg jeweler from Niger

Jewelry is a popular medium, with some of the most spectacular examples coming from the African continent. The first booth I approached was that of Niger jewelry designer Elhadji Koumama, whose shimmery silver earrings, rings, and necklaces attracted lots of attention. A tall, be-robed man with a dazzling, seemingly constant smile, Koumama said he was “thrilled and grateful” for the chance to participate in the event, and invited me to try on a pair of pounded silver earrings, adorned with delicate, swirling patterns. Kenyan artisan Meeri Tuya was like a walking advertisement for her jewelry: her neck was adorned with strands of colorful beads, and intricately patterned, beaded cuff bracelets were stacked high on each of her wrists. South African artist Lulama Sihlabeni makes ornately colored seed-bead animals, whose whimsical, sometimes cartoonish features belied painstakingly methodical beadwork. There were foot-long snakes and sheep covered with looped white beads and delicate, wire-armatured legs; the lion I ended up purchasing glows with yellow and orange beads and a vibrant golden mane.

Artist Lulama Sihlabeni and her beaded lion.

Artist Lulama Sihlabeni and her beaded lion.

ves of Cambodian artist Chantha Nguon were arresting. The artist wore one in a deep pumpkin orange, bordered with shimmery pale-orange tassels. A young man in his teens helped visitors try on the scarves. When I found out he was the artist’s son, I asked if he liked his job; he just laughed and said “Of course! It’s fun to be here and see my mom so happy.” I was also drawn to the brightly colored paintings of Cuban artist Luis Joaquin Rodriguez Arias, irresistibly cheerful and compelling, with their alternately intricate and simple depictions of verdant farms and bustling city scenes.

Chantha Nguon fabric artist.

Chantha Nguon fabric artist.

Nearby, the richly colored, deftly woven silk scar

Some of the booths feature work from people affected by unspeakable tragedies, like Rwandan basket weaver Janet Nkubana, who started Gahaya Links, a basket-weaving coop that has employed thousands of women affected by the Rwandan genocide. On view were minimally patterned, tightly crafted woven baskets, whose exquisite beauty and elegance seemed to underscore the resilience and courage of the artist who made them. Referred to as “peace baskets,” they are the efforts of both Tutsi and Hutu genocide survivors, and they form a powerful bridge between people that once considered each other enemies. Nepali weaver Phupu Sherpa was unharmed during the deadly earthquakes endured by his home country this past spring; nevertheless, the impact of a catastrophic natural disaster has been deeply felt by him and fellow Nepalese artists who made the journey to Santa Fe. Sherpa’s gorgeous textiles, many of which feature large, multi-colored flowers in hypnotizing detail, were show standouts.

Baskets form the Gahaya Links Cooperative, Rwanda  Photo © Lisa Law

Baskets form the Gahaya Links Cooperative, Rwanda
Photo © Lisa Law

Approximately 60 percent of IFAM’s artists come from developing countries where the per capita income is less than $10 a day. There’s an undeniable and all-too-rare pleasure that comes with purchasing an item that you know will directly affect the person who made it. The artisans I met and spoke to were not only eager to explain their process, but also enthusiastic about describing their homeland and background. Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market continues to expand, with plans to include even more artists for its 2016 event. No amount of words or facts about IFAM can do it justice. Visit for yourself, and meet some of the most hard-working and genuinely inspiring artists you’re likely to see in one place.

Next year’s International Folk Art Market will take place in Santa, NM from July 8-July 10.