Artists from 50 countries show wares at Santa Fe market

Jul 9, 2011, 8:24 p.m.

By Zelie Pollon

SANTA FE, New Mexico (Reuters) - Naina Valasai had never boarded an airplane before arriving in Santa Fe this week. In fact the 33-year-old from a remote desert region in Pakistan had never left her village before she was invited to present her ornately patterned ralli quilts at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, taking place this weekend.

"We were both afraid of the plane," said Naina's husband, 42-year-old Sadhumal Surendar Valasai, who by cultural norm had joined his wife on this long journey out of their village of Tehsil Diplo. "But if we want a better life for ourselves and the artists in our village then we must take these challenges."

Naina is one of 132 artists from 50 different countries gathered this weekend for the 8th annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, which is the largest in the world, said Market Executive Director Charlene Cerny.

More than twenty thousand visitors come to see traditional artwork from Cuba to Kazakhstan, Oman to Ukraine, Venezuela to Palestine.

Tinwork from Haiti, masks from Mexico, silk from Thailand and baskets from Zimbabwe all share company on Santa Fe's Museum Hill for a three-day festival that often sends artists home with income surpassing a year's earnings, Cerny said.

Naina and her husband represent a collective of Pakistani artists who together spend months creating the colorful patchwork quilts that are traditional in Pakistani culture. The folk art, which is chosen for its craftsmanship and often traditional, utilitarian function, is a rare means of income for a region stricken by poverty, and last year devastated by floods.

"We made the quilts for our personal use alone, but now the money will impact the lives of all the artisans and their children," said Sadhumal. "For us, it's a miracle."

Nearly 60 of the artists invited to this year's Market represent cooperatives, meaning their earnings will impact the lives of more than 30,000 artisans and up to 300,000 extended family members, Cerny said. It is the best case of micro financing for often very poor communities who would otherwise have no or very small markets for their traditional wares.

Last year's proceeds exceeded $2 million in sales, with 90 percent of that going home with the artists.

Generating income for poor artisans is certainly a goal of the Market, as is the preservation of cultures by finding a market for and encouraging traditional art.

"People want what is real," said Judith Espinar, co-founder and creative director of the Market. "This is the only place in the world where you will find so many authentic works and artists in one place at one time. The artists are tradition bearers because they are keeping the beauty, vitality, and cultural values of their homelands alive through their art. In a world where things often feel so manufactured, the Market in the real thing."

Farzana Sharshenbieva and her sister Kadyrkul came representing seven generations of felt workers from Kyrgyzstan. Dressed in a pink taffeta dress, and a black embroidered hat topped with a plume of white ostrich feathers, Kadyrkul said through a translator that they were chosen from 50 other Kyrg applicants. They had once before traveled to Turkey, but this was something they could never have imagined.

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