Best of Show
By Brenna Chu, Chubb
“I wanted to see where it would take me. And this is where it took me.” — Berdina Charley (Navajo), accepting the award for Best of Class VI, Textiles.
Image above: 2016 Indian Market Fancy Dancer Larry Yazzie. Photo by K. Leaken.
Welcome to the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Best of Show Ceremony, held the Friday before the 95th annual Indian Market. This ceremony brings together award-winning artists and families, donors of prize funds, SWAIA board members and collectors looking to get a sneak peek at this year’s best of the best. The winners are announced in each of the 11 categories, all leading to the top honor, Best of Show. This year, the recipient was Adrian Nasafotie, who received the award for his gravity-defying wood carving.
The Indian Market, which takes place in August each year, is the premier gathering of Native American artists and collectors from all over the globe. Over 900 artists, representing over 230 tribes, display and sell their work in outdoor booths lining the streets of downtown Santa Fe, New Mexico. More than 100,000 estimated visitors flock to Santa Fe for the market and the many other events held the week prior. Multiple generations of artists have shown at this fair, and multiple generations of collectors return year after year to see what’s new in the ever-changing world of Indian Art.
The Best of Show Awards Ceremony is the perfect kickoff for a great weekend. Artists receiving their awards deliver emotional thanks to their family members and SWAIA as we applaud and smile through tears. In accepting her Best of Class award for her experimental weaving at this year's ceremony, Berdina Charley tearfully spoke to the unpredictable process of weaving this piece. Looking closely at all the award winning pieces, the countless hours of work and the unavoidable ups and downs of the creative process are palpable. So what makes these awards so meaningful? And why are the audience members choked up along with the award winners? To understand the significance the awards ceremony, you must first understand the history of Indian Market.
The Indian fair was started in 1922 by the Museum of New Mexico as part of the Santa Fe Fiesta Celebration. The fair was created as a way to educate the public to appreciate Indian art as it had been before its translation into curios and souvenirs by non-native cultures. As Bruce Bernstein writes in Santa Fe Indian Market: A History of Native Arts at the Marketplace (Museum of New Mexico Press 2012), the first fair was held indoors at the state armory, next to the Palace of the Governors. The first years of the fair did not have artists in booths; instead, only the artworks were displayed. New pieces were shown next to historical artifacts from the museum’s collection to illustrate the continuation of traditional techniques and motifs, and to educate the public on what to look for when purchasing authentic Indian art. The museum staff served as judges, awarding cash prizes for the best pieces and handling all sales transactions.
In 1936, the fair became Indian Market, modeled after Mexico’s outdoor village markets and held under the Palace of the Governor’s portal. As with the original fair, cash prizes were given to artists to single out the better pieces, but the artists were now present, allowed to display their own work and sell directly to collectors without an intermediary. With this change the connection between the artist and the collector was forged, a relationship that continues to flourish.
The fair continued through the years, growing steadily. The market experienced a surge in popularity in the 1960s as a result of increased national interest in Indian art and culture. In 1962, Indian Market became its own event, separate from Santa Fe Fiesta. The fair expanded during this decade, and again in the 1980’s with hundreds of new booths added to accommodate a growing number of artists from the southwest as well as outside the region.
In the last decade, SWAIA has adapted new categories and standards, making the needs of today’s working artist a priority. In 2010, the number of categories to be judged was expanded to include Basketry and Moving Images, which includes subcategories ranging from experimental short to full length feature films. The number of submissions has grown dramatically since the classification was introduced. The Native Cinema Showcase, a collaboration between SWAIA and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), is held during the week before the market and screens between five and ten full length films and 50+ shorts. This year the winner of the Moving Images category was Jordan Dresser (Northern Arapahoe), Juliana Brannum (Comanche) and Mat Hames for the documentary “What was Ours.” SWAIA’s recognition of this medium is great exposure for the filmmakers; “What Was Ours” will premiere on PBS in January 2017.
Another new addition to the market weekend is Indian Market: Edge. Added in 2015, this event showcases contemporary fine art by Native American artists who may not have had a venue to show their work in the past. Painting and sculpture made by 30 emerging contemporary artists is shown indoors at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center and booth fees are not charged. SWAIA’s current director, Dallin Maybee, introduced the concept of Indian Market: Edge as a way for Indian Market to stay fresh, and to affirm that SWAIA is not just for traditional media. Further evidence of this message can be seen in the Haute Couture Fashion Show, now in its third year. This event presents the work of contemporary Native American fashion designers who have shown all over the world. The Haute Couture show compliments the long standing Native American Clothing Contest, in which prizes are awarded in a variety of categories for both traditional and contemporary clothing design.
Through all of Indian Market’s expansion, the Best of Show competition not only endures, but remains exciting. Each year, the award winners in each of the categories create new standards, demonstrating what is possible in the world of Native American art. Judges range from curators, gallery owners and dealers, to scholars, artists and other experts well equipped to understand what makes a piece special. For the past 95 years, this competition has continued to be the vanguard in recognizing winning combinations of tradition and innovation.
While the focus of the Best of Show Ceremony is to recognize individual artists and showcase the exceptional artwork produced during that year, it also reinforces the connection between artist and collector. In looking at the Best of Show winning pieces for nearly 100 years, we can see not only a history of award winning art, but also the evolving relationship between who makes the art and who purchases it. When Berdina Charley accepts her award and speaks about where the weaving of this piece has taken her, she is allowing us to see the creative process through her eyes. A new dimension in appreciating her work opens, and for many collectors this becomes an emotional connection.
The dynamic world of Native American art is reflected in the history of SWAIA’s Indian Market. Today’s Native American artist draws on tradition and personal experience to form their own identity and their own voice. Through Indian Market and the Best of Show Ceremony, SWAIA simultaneously showcases the voices of today’s Indian artists and strengthens the unwavering connection between artist and collector. It is both the innovative work of today’s Native American artists and the willingness of today’s collector to come along for the ride that continues to make SWAIA Indian Market a unique and moving experience.