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.
"We celebrated so much when we found out. This was our dream," Kadyrkul said.
Each year the market provides an incentive for about 22-24 first-time artists by providing them with a financial assistance package that includes their airfare, hotel, shuttles, and hosting, said Ernesto Torres, the Director of Artist Relations for the Market.
"Many first-timers are rightfully worried about how their work will fare in the Market -- so this opportunity gives them a chance to participate by lessening that anxiety and the risk factor."
Once in Santa Fe, artists are offered training sessions in areas of marketing and business, in the hopes that self-sufficiency and future success will follow. And success has indeed spread into those communities lucky enough to be chosen to come to Santa Fe.
An artist from Rwanda said all the women in her cooperative were able to buy family health insurance and create community gardens. In Nepal, cooperative members used their funds to send children to school and pay for medical expenses. Former street beggars in Kandahar, Afghanistan, were now able to work inside or stay home.
One year an artist from Africa had perhaps the most profound comment: "These are the four days of the year when I am completely safe."
This year's Market also coincided with the final celebration honoring 50 years of the Peace Corps. By merging their final of six Around-the-World Expo celebrations with the International Folk art Market, the event embodies the "overarching goal of the Peace Corps, which is the timeless work of making it a peaceful and prosperous world," said National Peace Corps Association President Kevin Quigley.
Despite New Mexico's largest wildfire on record, and now smoke and flash flood warnings throughout the state, thousands of people still gathered at a downtown park on Thursday for the Peace Corps celebration and to watch Market participants arrive by train in full traditional costume.
Cerny said she was "immensely grateful" for rains, which finally arrived in the state to slow the fire's progression and clear the skies. They arrived just in time to welcome the Market's thousands of visitors, 40 percent of whom come from out of state.
It's not just about the economics of a world market, but the community it creates, she said.
"It sounds like a cliche but I hear it all the time -- that the market is like a mini United Nations," said Cerny. "For both the artists and the market goers, these face-to-face encounters create a kind of hopeful magic. Art has always transcended conflict. It gives me hope for a troubled world."
(Editing by Greg McCune)