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Folk Art on Steroids

Does native craftsmanship still matter? Some 21,000 enthusiasts seem to think so. This summer in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the world’s largest folk-art market, $3.3 million of indigenous goods was purchased in just three days.

A CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay.

Theme: Tomorrow’s Apprentices

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Photography by KITTY LEAKEN

This July, in the 15th year of the International Folk Art Market, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the hot spot is the Innovation Inspiration tent. This is where master artisans from across the globe show how they elevate their culture’s traditional crafts by incorporating modern twists—through technique, materials, or design.

On preview night, loyal customers—many wearing colorful designs from previous shows—flock into booths to see this year’s creative offerings, and to visit with artists they have come to know over the years. Over the next three days, 21,000 people will spend $3.3 million on handcrafted goods made by 150 artists from 54 different countries.

The number of artists here, and the range of their work, is so vast that it’s impossible to do them all justice. So we’re resorting instead to a selective taste, offered through this photo essay. Enjoy.

Artist Marie Alexandrine Rasoanantenaina quickly sells out of her bird-nest baskets, which—as you can see below—are woven with the woodsy scent of Madagascar’s native vetiver grass.

Rasoanantenaina is the founder of a cooperative textile organization called Tahiana Creation, and she took her mother’s clothes-making business to a new, creative level by incorporating the country’s traditional roofing material into finely woven baskets, recycled-jeans placemats, and brightly striped table runners.

Phumelele Nala from South Africa displays vibrant bracelets, placemats, baskets, and thick necklaces made from telephone wire dyed in vivid primary colors. It takes four days of twisting sharp wire for women to make a simple coaster of elegant, swirled lines. Nala coordinates the artists’ work, selling locally in Cape Town and to international clients. She didn’t know how to weave until 20 ladies made her try the traditional technique. “It’s really hard,” Nala says with a shy smile.

Carla Fernandez’s shoulders are covered in furry wool that was soaked in mud to achieve her jacket’s midnight black color. A whimsical cat-like face peers through her jacket, its pink, triangle tongue sticking out at you. (In the photo above, Carla’s assistant models another jacket of similar style.)

Nothing is as you would expect in this Mexican artist’s clothes. Sleeves seem to appear from nowhere. There are no sizes – one way Fernandez flaunts traditional fashion. “We don’t believe the fashion system is fixed,” she says. “We’re creating our way of making fashion. We go slow. We know everyone we work with. We weave by the fire, the smell of smoke still in our clothes.” She travels to villages in about a dozen Mexican states to meet other artisans, exchanging ideas and developing new designs that still involve ancient techniques.

Thilak Reddy brought his intricately painted clothing from India to the International Folk Art Market for the first time this year. Situated in a corner booth in the Innovation tent, Reddy spreads out silk shawls depicting stories like the Tree of Life—blue bamboo branches rise out of a cloud-shaped pool where golden fish swim and a sea turtle floats to the top. Reddy was 12 when his father taught him his culture’s ancient tradition of Kalamkari art: hand painting designs on cotton or silk fabric with a bamboo stick and natural dyes, a technique dating back to 3000 BC in Iran and India.

Kalamkari art requires devotion and expertise; artists follow a laborious, 17-step process that starts with washing the fabric in traditional bleach—a mixture of cow dung, milk and water. Reddy’s father taught him the craft and then told him to pursue a different career; he didn’t think there was a way to continue making money producing wall hangings with kalamkari (a Persian word meaning ‘pen-art’). But Reddy earned an engineering degree as well as one in fine arts—believing that art would be his future too. When his father died, Reddy took over his shop and made kalamkari relevant for this generation by expanding beyond wall hangings and minor design tweaks. With his sister and mother, they have doubled their work force, crafting shirts, scarves, and long shawls (dupatta) that flow with religious stories and intricate details.

This year, Reddy made a new best friend at the show: Suriya Wongchai from Thailand. Wongchai doesn’t speak English, but at a show like this it hardly matters.

Art represents much more than aesthetics at the Folk Art Market; it is a major economic opportunity as well as a way for artists to use their ancient traditions to honor their heritage, promote peaceful relations between cultures, care for the natural world, and provide sustenance for people who scrape through life.

Chantha Nguon, flanked by her daughter, Clara Kim (left), greets customers and explains how she is using her culture’s traditional ikat silk weaving to shield women from desperate choices. As a public health nurse caring for sex workers in her Cambodian community, Nguon turned to art as a way to protect women earlier in their lives. In all nearby villages, every family has one or two looms for ikat weaving, a central part of the economy. With a $3,000 grant, Nguon started the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center, which teaches basic math and literacy skills to children; and weaving to their mothers, who have never had educational opportunities. When the women leave, she says, they are free to say no to marriage, free from becoming a sex worker. And the traditional silk scarves they create under the brand Mekong Blue are sensual and classically beautiful. They have earned the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Seal of Excellence for Handicraft in Southeast Asia three times.

At the booth for Gahaya Links Cooperative, from Rwanda, narrow baskets with zigzagged lines and tapered tops are mixed among stout, round baskets lined in bright blues and greens. The long-necked baskets mimic the pillars in the King’s palace; they also represent traditional Rwandan culture as well as peace between two warring ethnic groups.

After the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Sarah Mutesi Ban’s two “aunties” traveled to villages to start a basket-weaving arts collective with Hutu and Tutsi women. It was a way to not only make money but also to empower women who didn’t know how to talk to their ethnically different neighbors. The enterprise connected them; they shared skills with one another, always passing down their knowledge to the inexperienced. “It helped women overcome their fears and sorrows,” says Ban, who markets the baskets of geometric designs. Today 3,000 women weave naturally-dyed baskets of sweet grass and other native plants.

Rupa Trivedi (far right) presses wilted temple offerings and restaurant scraps into silk to dye light, pastel jackets and dresses that shimmer and flow with movement. She visited Mumbai’s large temple every day for about two years before officials allowed her to collect and recycle the flowers that should be thrown into the sea as mandated by Indian tradition. In founding her company, Adiv Pure Nature, Trivedi’s motivation was to reduce the sea’s pollution. She never considered the idea that she would promote recycling and composting, while also providing jobs for people without skills or education.

What’s not to love about an event that provides such a rich mixture of ideas, aesthetics, cultures, and generations?

More stories from this issue:

India’s Rug Saint

The Apprenticeship Ambivalence

Japan’s Gorgeous, Precarious Fishing Poles

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