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Living up to its claim

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TUCSON, Ariz. – It’s billed as “Southern Arizona’s Premier Indian Art Show & Market” and this year’s schedule aims to satisfy that claim.

The 15th annual show, Feb. 21-22, will present more than 200 renowned Native artists with everything from pottery and paintings to baskets and blankets in addition to rugs, jewelry and Hopi kachina dolls.

Mixed in with the top-quality artwork will be artist demonstrations, music and dance performances, and Native foods. “We want people to walk away enriched by barriers that are broken down by art, music and food,” said art fair coordinator Angelo Joaquin Jr.

Held on the grassy landscape surrounding the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, juried awards in the $10,000 range are presented to displaying artists. Attendees from serious collectors and long-time enthusiasts to first-time shoppers meet the craftsmen and hear stories about their handmade objects. According to sponsors, “SWIAF was created to support artists by developing a market for authentic Indian arts and estimated retail sales by these artists at this show exceeds $1 million.”

Specific subject shows like this one are big business. “Local fairs and festivals bring in an estimated $4 billion every quarter,” said the Craft Organization Directors Association in a report on the Fairs & Festivals Web page. “Not only do craft shows produce a financial asset, the events themselves rekindle the foundation that supported societies for decades – local arts and crafts.”

The local art at this show is so local you can watch the artisans craft their creations – much to the delight of the Indian Arts and Crafts Association and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board who work to implement and enforce the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 ensuring authenticity of construction and economic benefit of American Indian development.

Navajo jewelry maker Julius Keyonnie, who has been designing contemporary jewelry for nearly 20 years, will be the fair’s featured artist. Keyonnie produces unique creations with no duplication in any of the works he creates.

His efforts have been lauded as a skilled combination of technique, materials and design creativity that produce a new form of Diné art. Known for award-winning concha belts and rodeo trophy buckles, Keyonnie (himself a calf and team roper on the rodeo circuit) started his career by making trophy buckles as works of art. Reared by grandparents, his respect for his Navajo roots is shown in his use of rug and basket motifs, arrowheads and other symbols of his culture.

“We honor our ancestors and their teachings that are embedded in the creations on sale,” Joaquin said. “One of the things that sets us apart from other shows is the ambiance of intimacy that we offer. In larger shows, artists don’t get a chance to talk about their creations. It’s important for the artists to know a bit about the purchaser who walks away with a hand-made item that also includes a part of the artist.”

With an annual turnout of 5,000 – 8,000 spectators, Joaquin says SWIAF continues to be successful because it is planned and presented for the right reasons. “I’m struck by the number of comments the museum receives each year citing how the fair’s intimacy – its ability to create and maintain cherished relationships – surpasses that of any other comparable event in the region. Spiritual aspects are as important as monetary considerations. A state of wellness exists in a balance of spiritual, physical and mental health and the artwork at this fair allows artists to rejuvenate the spiritual and mental parts of their lives while they sell their work.”

As institutional sponsor for the fair, Arizona State Museum remains committed to all native cultures central to its research, collections, programs and events. SWIAF presents artisans and traders from tribal groups in Mexico as well as within the continental Southwestern United States. This addition enhances the scope of creativity because the history of these tribes, such as the Tarahumara and Zapotec, are also part of the history of the region.