Inside Casa Nova Gallery (530 S Guadalupe St., 983-8558, casanovagallery.com), an airy space in the Railyard full of imported art, some of the aesthetic feels quite familiar.
"New Mexico's traditional cultures and heritage are not too different from Africa's," shop owner Natalie Fitz-Gerald says in a lilting South African accent. "I wish someone would do a collaborative museum exhibition comparing Native American and African beadwork, pottery and basketry." She gestures across the room: "Our black Zulu beer pots are made in exactly the same way as the blackware in Santa Clara."
She discusses the items at Casa Nova with comfort, having opened the shop in 2003 in order to supply Santa Fe with sustainably made, fairly sourced tribal art, the vast majority of which is from Africa.
Fitz-Gerald, whose background is in finance, got into this business much by accident. While working to establish a bank in Johannesburg, she says, "on the weekends, I would go out and meet craftspeople and see what was being done in sustainable craft work. … And then, when I moved back [to Connecticut] and did my house, everybody said, 'Oh my god, this is so beautiful—could you get this for us?'"
She had developed close relationships with the co-ops and artisans from whom she'd buy in Africa; she'd also always had a grasp of the social inequality in her home country. "Finally, I thought, 'This is really a way of buying good while doing good.' I focused on cooperatives; on groups that had been funded in the interest of poverty alleviation and in creating sustainable livelihoods."
She moved to Santa Fe and, 15 years ago, opened Casa Nova. Under its skylights, you can find contemporary Namji dolls from Cameroon, vibrant clay dinnerware by a women's cooperative in Cape Town, metal crosses from Ethiopia, textiles from Madagascar and much more. Fitz-Gerald and her store manager, Nelly-Joy Irakoze, can tell visitors about the background of any item, and Fitz-Gerald also runs annual "insider's trips" to Africa, complete with safaris and wine country tours.
The best part? You can feel good shopping here. Historically, Fitz-Gerald says, "in South Africa, many co-ops were founded by white do-gooders. … Which is obvious, because under Apartheid, you had the Bantu education system—which is an oxymoron. There wasn't education." Bantu was notoriously colonial, segregated and racist. Fitz-Gerald says, however, that those "white do-gooders" often founded the cooperatives in order to impart their privileged education to disenfranchised populations, then would step aside to let their Indigenous counterparts run the show.
Stories like this abound at Casa Nova; and, Fitz-Gerald is sure to point out, her store manager has a story of her own.
Irakoze, who was born in the Central African nation of Burundi, speaks warmly of Casa Nova. "To me, it's like going back home. It reminds me of being in my mom's home," she says. Irakoze also loves to talk about Burundi; she keeps a map by the cash register. Many more Americans know about its northern neighbor, Rwanda; few know that 1994's Rwandan Genocide, in fact, started in Burundi in 1993, when Irakoze was in high school.
She, the eldest of five daughters to a widowed mother, obtained a scholarship to study massage in Santa Fe in 2003. She then went to Africa and Indonesia to provide bodywork in refugee camps for three years; and then, she wanted to come back to New Mexico.
"Every time I wake up and I have a choice to turn the water on and take a shower, it's a huge privilege," Irakoze says. "Everything we take for granted—it's a privilege. To wake up and have these choices, I feel like I'm a princess."
The art that Casa Nova sells helps provide more people have those choices every year. "I have many relationships with people who we still sell today, who have been with me since 2003," Fitz-Gerald says. "Which is even more of an endorsement of what we do; we wanted to show that you can have sustainable income."