SANTA FE, NM — This summer, the Southwest Association of Indian Arts (SWAIA) and the Santa Fe Indian Market celebrate the market’s centennial anniversary with events August 17 through 21. And for artist and former SWAIA Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director Dallin Maybee (Seneca and Northern Arapaho), this milestone is especially meaningful.
“I’ve been showing at the Indian Market since 2001,” he told Hyperallergic in an interview. “I feel like I’m a part of the community because of that history, and because I served my family of artists as director. And when you pour all of your professional and emotional experience into a service position like the executive director position, you can’t help but be absolutely invested in its success and want it to thrive. I love it, and I hope it goes on for another 100 years.”
Over the years, Maybee, who won the Best of Show Award at Santa Fe Indian Market in 2007, has found both a stable of dedicated collectors through the market and a close-knit community.
“Some of my closest friends are artists that I see not only at the Santa Fe Indian Market, but at other markets, too. I’ve gotten to know their families and watch their kids grow up. It very much is a sense of community and an opportunity to expand your family. It really is a beautiful thing.”
While he prepared for this year’s market, Maybee drew upon a lifetime of experience in visual and performing arts.
“I’ve kind of always been a doodler and an illustrator, ever since I was small,” he said. “But somewhere in my teens, I decided that I wanted to start dancing, either Iroquois social dancing, or pow wow dancing. I didn’t have a whole lot of help making my costumes, so I taught myself how to bead.”
While his fellow artists and dancers gave him tips along the way, Maybee’s early costume-making days were largely trial and error. “I put together some terrible outfits in those early days,” he said with a laugh. “But it was a foundation. It gave me a lot of different types of skill sets. And as the years went on, I became more competitive about it and did fairly well on the pow wow circuit.”
This gave Maybee the chance to see the world and gain a global perspective. “I wasn’t the best dancer, but my outfits were always spectacular, and that attracted a lot of attention.” The new attention gave him the motivation he needed to focus on using his creative skill set to make pieces that people could collect, beginning with dolls and moccasins, and then moving on to paintings, jewelry, fashion design, and ledger art and beadwork, for which he has become most known. This includes representational and narrative-driven beadwork, with subjects ranging from contemporary pop culture to more intimate scenes, like a young girl holding hands with a Sasquatch, and a series of jewels constructed out of hide, fur, and 18-karat gold beads. His popular ledger art follows the tradition of illustrations on antique ledger pages, each depicting scenes of Native life and history.
“Much of my work,” he said, “even though it’s a traditional medium and comes from a traditional foundation, still comes from contemporary narratives. Because that’s who we are as Native people. We’re an evolving, growing, living culture. We’re not relegated to the 1800s or any other time period. We continue to grow and thrive, and a lot of this is seen through our art forms.”
The dialog between traditional technique and contemporary narrative can be seen most clearly in Maybee’s gas mask series, which won the Santa Fe Indian Market 2018 Best of Classification award in Beadwork/Quillwork.
“In the early days of the pandemic, I was thinking about how much our culture has been asked to suffer and endure historically, from things like smallpox. And now, in a global pandemic, it’s not just our culture, and not just American culture that is being devastated.”
During that time, Maybee was investigating the stylized floral designs of his wife Naomi Bebo’s (Menominee and Ho-Chunk) Great Lakes culture, and found the novel coronavirus itself to be a surprising source of inspiration. “When I saw early microscopic images of COVID, I thought that as a simplified design element it was actually quite beautiful.”
From there, the concept evolved to include stylized smallpox and bubonic plague bacteria designs intertwined with floral designs bound by DNA strands, all rendered in intricate and vividly colored beadwork on Czech gas masks. “At the end of the day,” he said of this design, “we’re all human beings. We’re all suffering from this pandemic.”
Maybee’s work also meditates on the reasons we need gas masks in the first place. “Whether we need them because of war or pestilence, they’re a tool to help us endure these things, and ultimately overcome them. And those DNA strands resonate by reminding us that we really are all in this together.”
Today, Maybee is preparing for the Santa Fe Indian Market centennial by creating new, cross-disciplinary bodies of work, including traditional and contemporary silverwork, fashion design, and oil painting. But he’s not the only one in his family who’s hard at work.
“My kids have grown up around Indian markets,” he said. “And now that they’re getting older, they’re starting to create their own artwork. Art is intrinsically tied to our cultural identity. Each tribe has art forms that they are tenaciously holding onto, and passing on to younger generations. Because without those stories, and without those mediums, parts of those cultures will disappear. My kids will always have a place on my booth walls.”
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Julianne Aguilar is an artist, writer, and narrative designer. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Catapult, Take Shape Magazine, The Kitchn, and others. Her art has been shown at SITE Santa Fe, Vancouver...More by Julianne Aguilar