Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe: Re-examining the Concept of “Folk Art”

The “City Different’s” folk art museum on Museum Hill is a popular destination. Its rooms are chock full of materials affording colors, textures, craft techniques, and little narratives in dioramas and retablos with amazing detail. The cornucopia of collectibles is partly due to the fact that the museum is the repository of the massive “folk art” collections of “mid-century modern” designer Alexander Girard, who designed the display of his collection in the museum as a labyrinthine, near immersive experience.

Important as that is, that exhibition does not solely represent the mission of the museum. One can understand the dilemma: the modern-era concept of “folk art” is a colonializing one, something that Girard, from his mid-century viewpoint, probably could not appreciate. For all the brilliance of the designer–and the museum also has an exhibition of his own career from his days as head of Textile Design for Herman Miller to his work as house designer for Braniff Airways–his interest in dolls and parades and their paraphernalia supports what today might be considered a somewhat infantalizing, old-school approach to “other cultures.”

But the museum is also a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (, a network of global sites, institutions, and memory initiatives that “connect past struggles with today’s movements for human rights.” For many indigenous cultures–historically those cultures provide us with the authentic, craft-intensive folk art that everyone loves–are also cultures that have been marginalized or even under erasure by rapidly urbanizing nations in what we used to call the “third world.”

The Museum of International Folk Art has several other small exhibitions that support a recognizable global trend on the part of formerly oppressed people, or people forcibly assimilated to the demands of economic development and modern urban environments, to reclaim their original crafts as forms of resistance.

An example is the exhibition, “Crafting Memory: The Art of Community in Peru,” which focuses on the plight of migrants: people forced for economic. political, or environmental reasons to leave their ancestral communities and who are denigrated in the city. For example, the signature Peruvian wool hat called the chulla and the full skirts called polleras typify traditional dress that stigmatized their wearers, who were derided as “chola” or “cholo,” an ethnic slur. Qarla Quispe, a young artist working in Lima, creates defiant polleras from potato sacks or prints with contemporary graphics to tell the stories of the wearer’s family. She is part of a movement of artists who mix old cultural traditions with new. They are paired in the museum with T-shirts by Peruvian

collective AMAPOLAY, which combines urban immigrant street graphics with motifs from the Andean highlands, a mixture of tribal and urban called chicha (from the popular music style named for a type of beer). The shirts raise awareness regarding the plight of migrant cultures.

The chullo, the colorful knitted hat with ear flaps worn by young men who reach maturity in the Andes is revived by Aymar Ccopacatty, an Aymara artist, who knits a gargantuan version out of the plastic bags that litter Peruvian cities today–a critique

of the consequences of modernization. The chullo were individually crafted by fathers for their sons and became part of their identity, but also became a symbol of migrants’ tribal origins that helped make them targets. The late twentieth century saw violent cultural changes in Peru during the twenty-year conflict between the military and paramilitary, and the forces of the Maoist Shining Path. Towns were decimated across the map and the particular victims were the rural poor. More than 70,000 inhabitants disappeared. One story has it that the chullo could help a grieving family identify a body otherwise too disfigured or decayed. The refuse plastic fabric of Ccopacatty’s sculpture reflects that history but also speaks of the disfigurement of traditional ways of life and the deterioration of the Peruvian land.

“Sights of Memory: The Art of Community in Peru” is curated by Amy Groleau. It opened in 2017 and closes July 17, 2019.


Lana Dura – Sheep Wool Textiles from El Prado, New Mexico

Minna White is the creator of rugs, wall hangings, and other textiles made with a felting process that combines wool from different colored sheep into organic, abstract designs recalling Kandinsky or Miro.


I visited her studio with a beautiful view in El Prado near Taos, where she works with long-haired out coats of the Navajo-Churro, or Churro, sheep, a breed that was brought to North America in the 16th century by Spanish colonists. The sheep can be black, white, a variety of browns and grays, even striped. White does not dye the wool but cards it and uses the natural colors in a felting process to create her soft, thick textiles.

Her process can be found here:

“After War” exhibition at NNMC in Espanola

An exhibition of artists’ reactions to wars–all wars–is on view in the small but beautiful gallery at the Nick Salazar Center for the Arts, Northern New Mexico College in Española. The show’s presence in that historic town north of Santa Fe and south of Taos reflects the high toll wars have on small communities all across the nation.  Proportionately, the losses and the survivors’ stories of suffering hit these small communities harder. Nearly half the soldiers who fought the Iraq War, for example, came from communities (like Española) with populations under 25,000 (NPR “Morning Edition Feb. 20, 2007)

“After War: How War Affects Community” is curated by Sabra Moore as part of a series of exhibitions entitled “Visible Confluences. Moore wanted to include the notion of “all wars,” despite the show’s small size. Films by Cynthia Jeanette Gomez, David Lindblom, and Daniel Valerio express the experiences of the descendants of Genizaros (Native American slaves who often won their freedom fighting on the frontier). Julie Wagner shows a 60-year-old Japanese album full of ink drawings referencing aftermath of Hiroshima, and replicas of those drawings.


Julie Wagner, “Pines by the River” (book, 2006) and “Survivors” (ink drawings on the wall, 2018).

Margaret Randell’s photos show citizens visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. to find the names of those lost, and Nicolas Herrara paints about military experiences during the Iraq War. Moore herself shows multivalent works in the form of houses or boxes that tell stories. Norma Navarro weaves fiber art to convey the tearing apart and reweaving of communities. And Dana Chodzko shows twisted branches that poetically express the effects of PTSD, the result of any war.


Sabra Moore, Roger Mignon (far right) and one other stand in front of Moore’s “Story Scrolls House” (2018); Margaret Randall’s photos of the Vietnam War Memorial (1985) on wall.


NNMC Gallery view showing Moore’s “How Do We Get Out of the Box” (front: cedar poles and mixed media, 2005); on wall: Nicolas Herrera’s “The Eye of the World” (2003) and Dana Chodzko’s wall sculptures made of roots and branches.

The exhibition went up August 24 and can be viewed through September 21, 2018.