‘It’s a gathering’: Artists reunite at Native Treasures Arts Market
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the 18th annual Native Treasures Art Market took place over Memorial Day weekend with more than 180 Native American artists showcasing their work indoors at the Santa Fe Convention Center.
Especially after experiencing the challenges of the COVID-19 lockdowns, many Diné artists were happy to participate in the in-person event and reconnect with fellow artists and eager art buyers.
“It’s been nice to reacquaint ourselves with friends and family,” said Diné painter “Yellowman.” “Buyers and collectors of all sorts have come by today and it’s good to talk to them and see that they’re all doing well.”
This year, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, which puts on the event, did additional fundraising so that artists could keep 100% of their sales, which was good news for many who had lost income during the pandemic.
“Whenever you come to an art show, it’s a gathering,” said Yellowman’s son, artist Malachi Tsoodle-Nelson. “You get to meet and see a lot of old friends and artists you’ve looked up to – we haven’t seen each other in two years.”
“Now we can reach out and shake hands, bump elbows and give hugs,” he said. “It’s incredible!”
Tsoodle-Nelson said it was especially interesting to see how many Native artists had changed their styles and evolved during the pandemic.
“As an artist, you’re constantly creating, constantly moving towards a goal,” he said.
Diné photographer Rapheal Begay, who calls himself a “creative collaborator,” said he used the time during the pandemic lockdowns to “recontextualize” his work and reconnect with his homelands.
“Knowing that I didn’t have an outlet, I returned to the land,” said Begay. “I grew up in Hunter’s Point, which is surrounded by all of this red rock and beautiful blue sky. That was my playground.”
In the process, Begay said he realized there was nothing more “beautiful and free” than just existing in the moment, which he found very healing.
“When the pandemic hit, we really had to reevaluate our values – what was sacred to us and really take into account our mental health and our holistic well-being,” he said. “I like to look at my process as the practice of documenting the visual blessings that are shared with me from the land.”
Lauren Paige, museum director of leadership giving, estimated on Monday that over 2,300 people attended Native Treasures show.
“I think the weekend was a tremendous success and the artists had some incredible sales numbers,” Paige told the Navajo Times. “A lot of our collectors and donors showed up to support the artists. Overall, it was a big win-win.”
Diné weaver Thelma Brown, who was at the art show demonstrating traditional wool spinning and carding at the Toadlena Trading Post booth, said that even though Covid is still out there, the opportunity for artists to get out and sell their work is still much needed.
“It’s a little scary still because you don’t want to bring something home to your elderly parent, but it’s moving forward,” she said.
“We love it,” said Toadlena Trading Post owner Mark Winter. “It helps us get exposure to the public. We’re really happy to be back.”
Diné jeweler Darryl Dean Begay said the number of buyers who were in attendance points to pent up purchasing demand after the pandemic.
“What I see in the art market is people really wanting to be out and about,” said Begay.
“People were cooped up, people were scared,” he said. “Now they are buying and wanting to spend their money despite what’s happening in the economy.”
Begay said he felt very safe even with masking optional at Native Treasures.
“I know that COVID-19 is still out there, but I think that you have to not live in fear, because once you have fear, your immune system is not in a good place,” he said.
Sixth generation Diné silversmith Reggie Mitchell, who shared a booth with his son Bronson Mitchell, said that art market felt like a celebration.
“There’s some excitement, a jubilee feel to it all, but at the same time there’s that sense of caution, so you really have to be respectful of that energy,” he said.
“But all in all, it is absolutely a joy to be in one another’s presence,” he said, “to see each other’s beautiful faces and eyes, and really enjoy our fine art.”
Mitchell said it was also wonderful to see their jewelry, including stunning silver cuffs, belts and necklaces, and go to buyers who really appreciate their work.
“We put so much time and energy into what we do, carving the tufa or sand casting, and then we have to put it together with a really beautiful, high-end turquoise stone,” he said. “We put so much of our love into it that it’s good to have people be fond of our work.”
Tsoodle-Nelson and many other artists at the show said that one of the good things that came out of the pandemic was that artists were forced to learn how to move their work into the online forum and communicate remotely.
“I think with the pandemic, all the artists who were the traditional or older generation of artists who taught us all how to paint, how to sculpt, weave, they began to look toward the younger generation for advice on how to get their artwork on to the internet,” he said.
“During that time there’s been a mutual coming together of, OK, now I need your help, you teach me,” said Tsoodle-Nelson.
Being able to watch people learn how to show and sell their work through social media and on their own websites has been an incredible development that likely would not have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic, he said.
Jeweler Tim Yazzie said going to an online platform during Covid made artists like himself much more independent so they don’t have to rely solely on market sales.
“I started selling online so now I have a huge following,” said Yazzie. “Coming to shows is a good opportunity to meet people, but online is better now too – that’s the good part of Covid.”
Diné clothing designer Penny Singer said she also relied mostly on social media sales through the pandemic and actually spent the 2020 making designer face masks but was happy to reunite with collectors and clients in person.
“It’s like energy – it makes us feel good,” said Singer. “It is very exciting and a blessing for all of the artists to come out and do our shows because it’s like our job.”
Jemez Pueblo artist Kathleen Wall, who is famous for her Koshare and storyteller sculptures and won the 2020 Native Treasures “Living Treasure” award, said the thing she missed the most during Covid was not having the interaction with her colleagues and clients.
“My work has always been social,” she said. “When Covid hit, we had to reorganize and learn how to do everything online. It was a whole different world, packing and shipping instead of setting up your booth and having people walk off with the artwork.”
Wall believes the lockdown had a big effect on people’s spirits and said being able to see friends again was uplifting.
“I just feel so happy that we’re reconnecting,” she said. “It’s been so long since we’ve gathered.”
Hopi Katsina carver Nuvadi Dawahoya from Second Mesa was at the market with his son Dawesa and wife Marvene doing live art demonstrations.
“We see all of these people everywhere we go,” he said. “It’s like a big get-together every time we see them at these art shows. We’re missing a lot of people that did pass from Covid, but it’s always nice to see everybody out still doing what we do.”
Cochiti Pueblo artist/potter/fashion designer Virgil Ortiz, who won this year’s Native Treasures “Living Treasure” award, said while he’s used to working alone as an artist, the pandemic gave him the time and space to be more productive than ever.
“I got to regroup, refocus and create pieces that I always wanted to work on, but never did,” said Ortiz. “I did a lot more work than I ever have.”
By the same token he said it was great to be back out in public and share all of his new work.
“To see everybody gather is so awesome,” he said. “It’s really cool to see everyone out again.”
Ortiz said he was honored to receive the “Living Treasure” award, which he accepts on behalf of all Native artists.
“I always want to tell people, it’s not about me, it’s about all of us together as a collective,” he said.
Veteran Diné painter David John, who sold several paintings at the show, said reuniting with artists and collectors was the best part of the Native Treasures market.
“To get back to the art shows is a blessing ’cause we miss each other,” said John. “It doesn’t matter if we sell or not, it’s just seeing people and talking to them – that’s what we love. We’re part of the art world and we’re family.”