Project Antelope was born in 2021, at Christmastime. Tailinh Agoyo and Colleen Farwell were on the phone, holiday shopping on Instagram.
“It was during the pandemic, so everything was online. My feed was filled with fabulous stuff by Native artists, selling through their profiles. It wasn’t like that the year before,” says Agoyo, who’s been involved with the Indigenous art world since childhood. “It was this incredibly special moment in time—Native arts were exploding—but every time I tried to get something, it was already gone.” Farwell became exasperated while searching in vain for purple, floral moccasins by a Mohawk maker that she’d scrolled by without saving. “I told Tailinh that we needed to start an online marketplace for Native artists so I can find the things I want.” Farwell, an entrepreneur, already knew she’d jump at the chance to go into business with Agoyo, so it wasn’t just talk. But she didn’t expect what happened next.
“My friend, Avery, approached me about this exact thing two years ago,” Agoyo said. “He’s in web development and ecommerce. I'll set up a meeting.”
Farwell (Crow) and Agoyo (Narragansett) were roommates at Dartmouth College, in the 1990s. They reconnected several years ago and then worked together to produce and publish Farwell’s poetic picture book, I Will Carry You, which is sold in bookstores and museum shops around the country, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Avery Amaya met Agoyo through friends in Philadelphia, and got involved with her non-profit organization, We Are the Seeds, which offers an annual public arts festival as well as ongoing arts and culture presentations and workshops for Philadelphia’s Native community. Amaya, a lifelong athlete, gave presentations about lacrosse, a sport with Native American origins.
“Tailinh has so much energy, and she works so hard,” he says. “I thought it would be amazing to join together to create an online marketplace to promote the artists that she works with. We just needed some capital.” He presented his plan via cell phone from the middle of a Philly traffic jam, explaining that it would cost just a few hundred thousand dollars in start-up funds.
Agoyo laughs, remembering their first business conversation. “I was on the school playground with my kids. It sounded like a great idea, but who has a few hundred thousand dollars? I told him I’m busy momming, and building Seeds. He said he just wanted to put the idea in my head, if I ever thought of who might want to invest.”
Two years and one pandemic later, Farwell was interested in creating a business that might not only be lucrative, but creatively and spiritually fulfilling. And as the Arizona distributor for Native Cigarettes, she had the capital. The trio got to work. Though they initially talked to some eager investors, they ultimately decided to build and launch Project Antelope on their own, to keep their vision intact. “We need to establish who we are, and then decide who else should be involved,” Farwell says. “If that means starting slower and smaller, and figuring it out over a longer period of time, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Despite the trio’s deep experience in the art world, ecommerce, and merchandising, they needed someone with on-the-ground web development skills to take them to the finish line. Agoyo brought in one of her sisters, Taikwan Wright, to be their head of product. Wright’s experience includes developing a dynamic in-game advertising platform that was then sold to Microsoft. She quickly saw that Project Antelope was working with the wrong web platform, so even as they quietly launched the site late spring of 2023, she began creating a new site.
“It’s so tricky to have to think about every detail of a new business, but that’s where I shine, in keeping track of all the little questions that come up, and asking how they want to execute solutions,” she says.
Amaya is confident that once they roll out their marketing, near Christmastime, the site will blossom. “And a year from now, we should have onboarded plenty of artists to the site, and we’ll be having pop-up shows around the country.”
Native art shows have been vital to collectors of Indigenous art for more than a century. But collectors aren’t the only people looking for Native goods, and in the internet era, limiting the bulk of sales to annual, regional events that require both vendors and buyers to show up in person is needlessly old-fashioned. While they understand that Project Antelope isn’t a wholly new idea—many Native artists have put their work online—Agoyo, Farwell, and Amaya want Project Antelope to be a user-friendly, community-driven platform that can serve thousands of artists at once, from younger, tech-savvy creators, to elders and those from rural areas without access to or much experience with technology.
Even more importantly, at Project Antelope, Native artists define for themselves what Native art is, regardless of genre, medium, or style. “We have the ability to accept everybody, to give space to everybody,” says Farwell.
“We’re not a jury, awarding prizes. I don’t think it’s up to us to decide whether art has a certain value,” Agoyo says. “All of our tastes are very different, so we focus on quality of materials. If you’re an artist who is just starting out, you have just as much of a place in our community as someone who’s been practicing for 50 years.”
In the future, she says, Project Antelope artists will be able to connect and collaborate with each other, and take advantage of other expanded opportunities. “It’s not just getting on the site and selling your work. Each artist will receive individual, customized attention. This is about partnerships, about creating generational wealth, about Indigenous artists from around the world tapping into the global marketplace.”