Belinda Thanises sat in the brick courtyard outside Niche at the Pearl and held a creamy white ostrich egg in her hand.
“My favorite,” she said.
Thanises brought dozens of intricately beaded ostrich shell bracelets and necklaces from Namibia, her home country, to the International Artisan’s Mini-Fair. Each piece is composed of dozens, sometimes hundreds, hand-forged, tiny, white disks. The whole egg, in contrast, is simple. Its surface is lightly pockmarked and shines subtly in the afternoon sun. The massive shell could hold a dozen ordinary chicken eggs, said Thanises.
I picked up the egg carefully, nervous that I might drop it on the hard pavement.
“The way you are holding it, that’s how they feel about it,” she said. “It’s very precious.”
Thanises is visiting San Antonio to represent Omba Arts Trust, a Namibian nonprofit that is one of six sellers at the fair, running at the Pearl from Thursday, Dec. 10 through Saturday, Dec. 12. The fair is a San Antonio initiative to connect global artisans to the San Antonio market.
Sherry Kafka-Wagner, considered a powerhouse in the San Antonio arts community was the driving force behind the three-day event. She was inspired during a trip to a temporary market organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Click to read Wagner’s story, “A Life Rich in Books and Experiences.”
“I was at a booth and I bought something from some women from South Africa,” Wagner explained. “And I said, oh, this work is so wonderful, I’m going to send my friends next year.”
The women told Wagner that they might not be at the fair the next year—the market had become so popular that the Museum was forced to alternate their vendors.
“And they said that it’s been so important to us and it’s meant so much,” said Wagner. “When I heard Santa Fe was trying to make other markets [in other cities], I thought, ‘yeah.’”
She tried to forge a partnership between Santa Fe’s museum and San Antonio. When that didn’t work out, she went ahead on her own and raised money to bring 16 different vendors to San Antonio. The vendors sold from a vacant storefront in the Pearl and, according to Wagner, did immensely well.
“It’s a win-win-win,” she said. That was in 2013.
In 2014, a knee surgery and a family accident kept her from organizing another fair. This year, however, she’s brought a half-dozen vendors to Niche for what she hopes will be another successful event.
The vendors take home 90% of the profits, while the other 10% goes toward processing credit cards and paying for international financial transactions, Wagner said. She raised money from individual donors to pay to ship the merchandise from their countries of origin to San Antonio, and to transport, house and feed the vendors’ representatives while they stay in San Antonio.
It’s been a city-wide effort—Wagner credits El Tropicano Hotel with providing discounted rooms, while the Pearl and Niche have supported the fair itself. The fair has also attracted a dedicated group of volunteers—more than 40 people will have contributed by the end of Saturday, she said. They are all excited to get first dibs on the merchandise, she noted, with a smile.
That merchandise is diverse, featuring six vendors from five representative countries. Thanises is the only vendor representative who lives in the same country as her artisans. The others live in the United States and represent the vast community of folk art enthusiasts who work to connect vendors in many poor parts of the world with financial resources.
Terri Hendrix, who works as a special educator in California, represents vendors from Niger, Ukraine and India at the fair. She picked up a silver and ebony necklace from Niger while she helped to set up shop.
“Each bead takes an artist a day to make,” she said of the beads, which are finely detailed with hundreds of minuscule marks.“All the work is done by hand. There are no machines, so all of this work is done with sharpened screwdrivers, hammers, files and chisels. Every bit of it.”
The artists who made the necklace are a part of the Tuareg Jewelry Metalwork Collective, an extended family operation begun by silversmith Elhadji Mohamed Koumama.
“The Tuareg are the indigenous people of the Sahara Desert,” said Hendrix.
When I asked her how Elhadji began to work with silver, she told me that he was born into it.
“It started out because his family has always been silversmiths,” she said. “They can count it back 25 generations. It started out just being the family, but as he started coming (to the United States) it got better, and it just kept growing and growing.”
Nearly 100 artists, which include silversmiths, polishers,and beaders, work for the collective now, Hendrix said.
“Every piece is then sent home in a bag so that we can hire local tailors,” she added. “Everything is made there. And we’re trying to give everyone in the community a job. That’s our goal, because Niger is the poorest country on this planet.”
The idea that access to an international market can transform poor communities was a common theme that I discussed with fair representatives. Profits from the Tuareg collective have allowed Elhadji to build a well and a school for his small community. For Lesia Pona, the Ukrainian artisan who made the finely embroidered textiles for sale at the fair, a successful sale can be the difference between working by candlelight or electric light, between having heat or not during a frigid Ukrainian winter.
A box of Namibian baskets failed to arrive at the fair this year. Though she maintained her composure when talking to me, it was clear that Thanises was devastated.
“That money would have gone back to the women to pay school fees,” she said. “It is an opportunity that we have lost that we cannot get back again.”
In 2013, the baskets had helped the women who make them get through a deadly drought in Namibia.
“They plowed, they planted and nothing happened,” said Thanises. “But for the basket makers it was a good year. Even though they did not make food off the land, the basket production went up so that they could make money to buy food.”
Now, that money might not come. Wagner wants to offer any leftover money from the fair to the basket makers, but the tragedy of the missing box makes it clear how much events like this are a lifeline for the artisans.
Another group of women that Thanises works with, the Donkerbos, make the ostrich egg jewelry.
“They are deep in the bush,” she said. “There is no way they can communicate most of the time unless they go to a big hill.”
Thanises began working with them in 2007. She says she has never seen a group of poorer, more dejected people.
“But I go to these ladies today and they have changed so much,” she said. “They are so healthy and clean. They are so friendly and outspoken and outgoing. And I just love to see that.”
The work Omba is able to provide, she said, has a genuine impact on the community. It gives people control over their lives and preserves traditions.
Thanises held the Ostrich egg in her hands again and turned it over to show a hole in the bottom. For Namibian tribal people such as the San, the eggs are not only used to make jewelry, but to hold water. The eggs are a precious resource in a dry country.
“There’s a photograph of a very old San woman giving an egg to a very young, beautiful San girl,” she said. “And it’s amazing how it says something else. She’s giving it, this egg which she has probably had for a long time.”
Thanises smiled and let me take a picture of her holding the egg. She, too, looks as if she is offering a gift as she holds it. She looks as if she is passing on something precious.
The International Artist Fair will run on Thursday, Dec. 10 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click here to learn more information about the event or specific vendors.
*Top Image: Belinda Thanises of Omba Arts Trust holds a hollow ostrich egg, which is often used to make intricate beaded jewelry. Photo by Abbey Francis.