Co-Op Taps International Markets To Preserve Tuareg Tradition

Jul 9, 2015

This weekend the world comes to New Mexico, as more than 150 artists kick off the 12th annual Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. For many artists from the developing world, the market has become a lifeline. 

Most of the $20 million in sales the market has generated over the years went back to these artists' communities. This often helps preserve ancients crafts by improving the living standards of artisans and their families.


Tuareg bracelent
Credit Folk Art Alliance

Elhadji Mohamed Koumama is a member of the Tuareg nomadic group in Niger. It's one of the poorest countries on earth, yet the fine art of silversmithing has survived for generations. Koumama makes jewelry of pure silver, ebony wood and precious stones with symbols marking significant life passages.


“I was just born into it," he says. "All my family, my grand grand father, his grand grand father, they make jewelry. And I love it. I love this work.”


Koumama carves a shape in beeswax and then covers it in a clay mold. That mold is hand-fired, using goatskin bellows. Then he pours liquid silver into the clay mold and uses hand tools to engrave and embellish the jewelry.

“All the designs is done by screwdriver. It's traditional design," he says.


Tuareg ring
Credit Folk Art Alliance

Koumama and the artists in his cooperative use the methods their forefathers used centuries ago. The geometric patterns represent things like camel eyes, crocodile teeth, and the sultan's palace. In Tuareg culture, jewelry marks important events like weddings, when a groom gives a necklace called an Igouru to his bride.


“And then the Tuareg women wear this jewelry – they lay them on their neck," he says. "And there is one piece they like to wear all the time. This we call the chat-chat.”


The chat-chat is the first piece a Tuareg woman wears and she adds on more pendants as she ages. Visitors to Niger also sought out the jewelry, but in recent decades rebellions and kidnappings have taken their toll.


“We have a big problem because there is no tourists," Koumama says.


This year, before the market, Koumama got intensive mentoring in Dallas to connect him with more international buyers.


“I'm glad to find this way, to come here to do Santa Fe market to do Dallas market. Without this it's terrible because I don't know what to do," he says. "I have to resolve the problem of many people, many artisans.”


Koumama’s community is now building a new school with electricity and running water.


Tuareg necklace with precious stone
Credit Folk Art Alliance

“We are 35 artisans. So when I come here all the money I make I go back there," he says. "So we share this money and all these people make jewelry. The community is a couple of hundred people. We just make the profit – they eat, they buy their food and on my profit I sometimes I help – to build a well, children go to school. And also the people who live in the village I take this to the poor people, to try to help.


All the children in the community can attend school with funds from international jewelry sales. But the students are also learning silversmithing. Some plan to study business in college – which will help them ensure their craft, and their communities, will continue, just as they have for centuries.