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Southwest Indian Arts Fair hits mark again

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TUCSON, Ariz. – For the past 15 years, promoters have billed the event as “Southern Arizona’s Premier Indian Art Show & Market,” and they hit the mark again this year.

“Having temperatures in the low 80s in February didn’t do us any harm,” said Angelo Joaquin Jr., coordinator of Arizona State Museum’s signature event that draws more than 200 renowned Native artists from 50 tribes in the Southwest.

Beginning with a blessing in both English and Diné – giving thanks to Mother Earth and Father Sky – the two-day event drew a larger crowd than last year’s 5,600 paid attendees.

“One thing I learned from last year is that this is kind of like a family reunion in the way people view our fair,” Joaquin said. “I’ve talked with artists, staff, volunteers and attendees, and they all say the same thing – there’s an ambiance in the air even if we only see each other once a year. It feels like a family gathering and a different vibe from other shows that are so huge you can’t get this kind of intimacy.”

Museum exhibits included “Paths of Life: American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico,” “Set in Stone: 2000 Years of Gem and Mineral Trade in the Southwest,” and “Wall of Pots,” a cultural timeline of Southwestern pottery traditions. Ongoing demonstrations included the how-to’s of weaving, sand painting, basketry and flute making.

“Vendors want to sell their wares, but we also want this to be a teaching moment,” Joaquin said. “One of our goals, since we’re a part of the University of Arizona, is to educate attendees about the original inhabitants of the Southwest – so we invite demonstrators who will show how they make what they sell.” Also on the weekend schedule was a seminar on, “Is It Authentic Indian Art?”

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Photo courtesy Marnie Sharpp/Arizona State Museum The Southwest Indian Arts Fair saw beautiful weather and a great turnout for the festivities in February. There were more than 200 renowned Native artists from 50 tribes in the Southwest with work on display.

The answer to any question of authenticity was a resounding “Yes” with artisans from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Southern Colorado, Southern Utah and the California side of the Colorado River creating and selling everything from jewelry and rugs to pottery, paintings, baskets and blankets. “As you wander among the vendors, you can compare a number of different types of artwork, and even within those categories you’ll see differences in the materials used, symbols represented and the people themselves,” Joaquin said.

Where the Southwest Indian Art Fair differs from other larger shows around the country is its personality. “Our challenge is to present a balanced show to demonstrate the diversities of our peoples. Everyone is here to make some money doing what they’re good at, but our approach is different in that we allow artists and potential customers to actually talk to each other.

The artist knows when the buyer walks away with an item that is essentially a part of the artist, the item will be honored for its creation and respected for the cultural meanings and symbols it contains. I think that enriches the purchasers view on a piece of art – it’s no longer just a purchase, it has a personality and tells a story, one that has been explained and therefore becomes even more beautiful when you know the personal and spiritual connections to it.”

“I use traditional stories and traditional motifs in my work,” explained Navajo jewelry designer and the show’s featured artist Julius Keyonnie, who was reared by his grandparents and taught to respect his culture. “The creativity in my craftsmanship comes from Diné stories that involve the spirit world and ideas come through my mind before my hands go to work. Spirit, tradition and the environment are all reflected in what I do and I’m pleased to have an opportunity to explain the history behind my work.”

Transference of ownership of an item is somewhat analogous to an adoption where biological parents want the adoptive parents to know history and background. “When artists collect clay for pots, they give thanks to Mother Earth for giving up a part of herself the same way when basket weavers collect materials, they give thanks to the plants for giving of themselves,” Joaquin said. “Those subtleties, those meanings, unless you have the time to talk directly to the artist, those meanings can be missed.”

Last minute changes always occur in events of this complexity; like some Hopi artists being called home because the moon was in the correct phase to hold tribal ceremonies. “Just one of the things that happens; if it’s your obligation to fulfill a ceremony, you can’t say no,” Joaquin said. “But I never worry much about what might happen. Everything falls into place when people come together for the right reasons. You set the venue, the tents, the tables, and you incorporate change as it occurs. Our mission is to keep vendors happy because happy craftsmen give off good energy, the crowds show up, synergism happens, and smiles and love are found on both sides of the vendor tables.”