Southwestern Association for Indian Arts launches its 97th annual Indian Market this weekend, with new Executive Director Ira Wilson at the helm—and without its now-infamous tenure program. Tenure served as a de facto placeholder for participating artists since its inception in 1992; for some artists, it meant their children could exhibit with them and eventually become grandfathered into the event. For others, it felt like a barrier that highly favored older, long-exhibiting artists.
Wilson tells SFR when it comes to the the tenure program that "decisions made in the past prevented new blood from participating with SWAIA." And now? "New policies are in place to grow the youth base each year," he says. The ethics and fallout surrounding the tenure changeup remain messy and unsettled, with claims of ageism against SWAIA, but others say it opened new doors for younger and first-time artists.
Tenure or not, Indian Market has always encouraged artists of any age to apply, and every applicant's work is judged by a blind jury, using a number system to mask the artist's identity. Acceptance is based on the total number of points earned across four categories: aesthetics, Indian Market standards, creativity and technical execution. The only nationwide event of its scope, the market is accessible to Native artists outside of state boundaries dictated by settler-colonialism—which seems like an important act of Indigenous reclamation.
With so much change in the air and alongside special events like the the Haute Couture Fashion Show on Saturday afternoon, the Indian Market Gala (which features a new "pre-contact menu" that uses ingredient staples dating prior to colonization) on Saturday evening, SWAIA also aims to prioritize collaborations with the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and the Ralph T Coe Center for the Arts while focusing on fresh young voices in Indigenous art.
One vehicle of that focus is SWAIA's Youth Fellowship program, a staple in their effort to support and foster young artists. The application process is open to artists age 12 and under who are already Indian Market particpants. Three recipients were selected this year. Artists receive $500 for supplies or art lessons for their project, and the award is based on the strength of applicant's artist statement and the initiative shown when outlining how they'd spend the money.
This year's winners include 11-year-old Raven Naranjo (San Ildefonso Pueblo and Navajo), who says he is inspired by video games and wants to express himself through painting on canvas. His work contains traditional San Ildefonso imagery such as prayer feathers, parrots, crows and rain—elements otherwise referred to as "the fundamentals for life." In his work, Naranjo is mindful of spirit breaks—the depiction of how a spirit enters and exits a body.
Another recipient is Georgeanne Growingthunder (Nakoda, Dakota, Kiowa, Seminole), a 6-year-old budding artist from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and the youngest child of George and Tahnee Growingthunder, both former Indian Market artists themselves. Georgeanne has been beading since she was 2 years old. "This year the SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Market will be Georgie's third year to show as a juried artist," her mother Tahnee tells SFR via email. "Georgie has attended every year of her life, and even while she was in the womb."
Fellow Niska Kempenich (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), 10, is from Grand Forks, North Dakota, and is the daughter of studio artist and social justice advocate Hillary Kempenich. At her core, the youngest Kempenich is passionate about dance and visual arts, and has experimented with various mediums before finding an ongoing interest in the traditional art of birch bark biting, an ancient technique that involves biting intricately shaped designs into small folded pieces of birch bark. She is too young pursue it fully, as it requires adult teeth—so, for now, she paints and etches on birch bark instead.
Outside of the scholarship program are plenty of other young creators showing at this year's market, including former fellowship recipient Apaolo Benally (Diné), 8, and his older brother, Giovanni (Diné), from Pojoaque Pueblo. At age 12, Giovanni is the youngest artist headlining a booth at this year's market, which he shares with Apaolo—who, two years ago, was the youngest-ever artist to receive the Youth Fellowship. Apaolo says the award was so much more than money—it was a confidence-builder and the positive encouragement he needed to keep practicing his work. Giovanni invited SFR to visit his Pojoaque studio, a small room attached to sculptor George Rivera's workspace and gallery where his father, Ryan Benally, works.
Both boys and their father greet us at the end of a long dirt road. Apaolo walks over first, holds out his hand and introduces himself. After we shake hands, he runs off behind the house and we don't see him again. Giovanni, meanwhile, is a painter and a hoop dancer, a member of the Lightning Boy Hoop Dancers, a group created in memory of Rivera's son Valentino Tzigiwhaeno "Lightning Boy" Rivera, who died in 2016.
Giovanni takes inspiration from Andy Warhol, pop art and fluorescent colors. In his paintings, he combines these aesthetics with his depictions of traditional heroes from Diné culture. He believes this helps him stand out in group shows. "I focus on my artwork and keep making things over and over again," he says.
SWAIA, as a whole, is further embracing the contemporary movement, particularly in the form of the annual IM:EDGE show in the Santa Fe Community Convention Center. The show adopts the theme Activism & Identity this year, uplifting work that speaks to various sociopolitical issues that directly affect Indigenous communities.
Take Durango-based painter Sierra Edd (Diné), who paints both individually and collaboratively with her sisters, Ruthie, Santana and Chamisa, all of whom are slated to show at this year's IM:EDGE. Edd uses her work as a platform to examine how women's bodies, specifically Navajo women, have been impacted by colonialism and intergenerational trauma. She hopes by discussing the patriarchal violence that impacts her and others within her community, she can reach other women who have felt violated.
"I hope they connect to my pieces," she says of viewers in the Native community, "because that's who I am making the art for. It is important to be knowledgeable about that experience and our psychological trauma."
These young people are the brilliant forefront of their artistic and cultural movement. As Indigenous culture continues to morph and evolve, it is important to move beyond simple aesthetics and talk about today's issues.
SWAIA's Wilson concurs: "It's fundamental; art is history, culture, and tradition for Native people—for the continuance of it, it's especially important that we support fellowships [for] young artists to encourage their growth and to give them an avenue for self-expression; to share their culture, history and knowledge with the world. It's paramount that we support our young artists."
9 am- 5 pm Saturday and Sunday Aug. 18 and 19. Free.
Santa Fe Community Convention Center,
201 W Marcy St.,