Bigger Than Ever, AFN Art Market Showcases ‘Microcosm of Alaska’

George J. Bennett Sr. poses with his bent cedar boxes during the 2023 AFN Art Market in Anchorage. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Hundreds packed the main exhibit hall at the Dena’ina Center in downtown Anchorage Thursday for the first day of the Alaska Federation of Natives Art Market.

Each year, local artisans gather for three days during the convention to sell wood carvings, cusps, fur hats and all kinds of jewelry. Festival organizers said this year’s market was bigger than ever.

This year’s convention featured more than 200 artists from across Alaska and the Lower 48. Sitting in the middle of it all was George J. Bennett Sr., a Tlingit artist from Sitka. His bentwood boxes, decorated in shape, were already half sold by the end of the morning.

“About six, eight people gathered at my table before I was even ready to price them,” Bennett said. “They wanted boxes … so about eight or nine boxes came out within half an hour of me getting here!”

Bennett has been making boxes for 25 years. This is his fifth market. His wife is in internal affairs, so they enjoy catching up with any friends they come across.

“It’s kind of like the melting pot,” he said. “It’s like you’re sitting on the corner watching all your friends go by and when you see them you wave.”

Jack Bonney of Visit Anchorage helped organize the AFN convention and this year’s market. He said every region of the state was represented.

“It’s a microcosm of all of Alaska in Anchorage, in one or two rooms for a few days,” he said.

Bonney said the market draws thousands of people to AFN each year. Upstairs, prominent leaders speak and important discussions take place on Alaska Native issues. But the market can be an entry point for the general public.

“The art market is one of the big draws for people who might not otherwise know what AFN is, or it might be their first visit, which leads to a larger conversation about what AFN does in the community,” he said.

colorful earrings on table stands
Earrings made by Vina Brown, owner of Copper Canoe Woman, are on display during the 2023 Alaska Federation of Natives Art Market in Anchorage. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Trinity Villalobos came to the convention from Fairbanks on business. But like everyone else who attends AFN, she and friend Tiara Davis took some time to check out things that won’t break the bank.

“I was looking for something cool, something unique, something I could afford,” Villalobos said.

She was looking at some Halloween-themed bracelets — while Davis had her eye on a hummingbird hair clip.

“We realized that, like beadwork, it takes a lot of time, and so you want to be able to pay people what they’re worth or what they’re quoting,” Davis said. “But you know, the price just might not be what your pockets can bear.”

two people buy jewelry from a woman at a table indoors
Vina Brown, owner of Copper Canoe Woman, sells her jewelry during the 2023 Alaska Federation of Natives Art Market in Anchorage. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

For the first time this year, the market moved to an additional room upstairs. Vina Brown arranged her table there. She is Haíłzaqv and Nuučaan̓uɫ, originally from British Columbia. She traveled from Lumi, Washington to the market for the first time. She has been to the Santa Fe Indian Market and others.

“I really didn’t know what to expect. But so far, it’s pretty impressive. I mean, there are so many people,” she said.

Her business is called Copper Canoe Woman, based on her native name ƛ̓áqvas gḷ́w̓aqs, and features traditional designs such as a molded line with a haute couture flare.

“Just as our rights are not frozen in time, our art is not frozen in time. So we’re allowed to adapt and spin and elevate that,” Brown said.

Many artists sell out before the final day, and Brown said he’s performing that, too — to offset his travel expenses.

Back in the main hall, Bennett said that whether he sold all his boxes or not, it was enough to see people enjoying his work.

“It’s a good way to connect and share our culture with each other through this kind of work,” he said. “So it’s beautiful.”

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