Storied Objects from the Smithsonian Folklife Festival
50 Festivals, 225 programs, 800+ objects, thousands of participants, millions of visitors
Explore the rich history of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival through our material culture collection. Each object holds a story of community, tradition, collaboration, and conversation, bringing to life the spirit of the Festival as a celebration of traditional cultural heritage.
Festival objects shine a light on Festival history
From chainsaw carvers to Southern potters, religious scroll painters to silversmiths, participants in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival have created a remarkable array of storied objects as they’ve discussed their cultural traditions with the public. Sometimes, near the end of a Festival, they present these objects as gifts to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The resulting material culture collection has grown to more than 800 objects. Unplanned and unexpected, it is beloved by staff. It is also essentially unknowna hidden treasure within a research unit of the Smithsonian. Yet thanks to the memories of staff, the eloquence of the artists, and the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archivesthere is much to learn from these storied objects.
The fifty selected objects were made by traditional artists from around the world during more than thirty Festival programs. Instead of presenting one object from each year, we looked for objects that tell a good Festival story. What added something can we learn about a particular object and its maker because of its Festival origins? It turns out quite a bit!
2012 Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt
2013 One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage
2014 China: Tradition and the Art of Living
2014 Kenya: Mambo Poa
2015 Peru: Pachamama
2016 Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration
Tools & Equipment
Toys & Models
Graham Stewart described the silver vessel he made at the 2003 Folklife Festival as a “simple salmon shape so kids could understand straight away what I was making.” His modest manner belied his reputation as one of Scotland’s leading silversmiths.
A small silver vessel in the shape of a fish. The fish’s tail curves upwards with fine lines etched into it, and the body of the fish is textured with stamped scales. The eye of the fish has fine detailing and the mouth sits just below and to the right of the eye. At the bottom of the fish body, there is a base.
A bowl to symbolize the migration of the Scots
The salmon gravy boat was well suited to the varied decorating techniques Stewart wanted to demonstrate during his time at the Festival—the scales, tail, and head all required different tools. The piece took on a special meaning after he decided to finish the bowl back home, as he explained in an interview during the Festival:
“I’ll take it back to Dunblane to make it into a vessel. Rather than bring a lot of flames and dangerous equipment here, I’ll finish it there and then send it back over as a record of the event… I’ve been calling it the ‘transatlantic salmon.’ I thought the fish symbolized the migration of the Scots over to North America. This bowl started in Washington, goes back to Dunblane, and comes back again. It symbolizes migration, a meeting together, and a great event!”
Stewart remained true to his word and sent the bowl back. It now rests in a display case along Curators Row in the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s office. When I contacted him prior to the fiftieth anniversary in 2017, he retained fond memories of participating in the Festival and agreed that like many before him, he developed a strong mutual admiration of the other program participants—and learned a great deal from them. He also admitted that the experience of listening to Scotland’s finest musicians all in one place was a thrill of a lifetime. His experience of following the music can thus be seen as mimicking the migration story of his bowl by traveling halfway across the world (and back again) to hear the great musicians of his homeland.
The construction of a Bhutanese temple (lhakhang) on the 2008 Festival grounds started with a cultural negotiation—it needed to be modified to accommodate an accessibility ramp. This was a foreign concept to the builders, but they quickly embraced it. This section of railing was removed for the ramp and later donated to the Center.
The 2008 Bhutan program introduced Festival visitors to a little known part of the world at a time when Bhutan was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy. The lhakhang was the centerpiece of the program and became an irresistible draw. Its architectural elements were created in Bhutan, packed and shipped to America, and then carefully assembled into this country’s first authentic Bhutanese building. When completed, monks welcomed visitors into the temple. Its interior dazzled, and visitors knew they had entered a special place when they passed over its threshold.
As the 2008 Folklife Festival drew to a close, a sudden thunderstorm struck. As retired Festival director Diana Parker recalls, “The rain came out of nowhere… it poured! And then there it was: a double rainbow right over the temple. The Bhutanese told me, ‘Of course! It’s a blessing at the end of this endeavor.’”
Visitors often wonder what happens to the large temporary structures erected each year during the Festival. In the case of the lhakhang, prior arrangements had been made to move the building to the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso. Why there? A devastating fire had destroyed the original buildings nearly a century earlier, and the campus was rebuilt in a style reminiscent of Bhutanese architectural design. University planners were inspired by the April 1914 issue of National Geographic, which featured the distinctive whitewashed buildings of Bhutan, set in a hilly, arid terrain similar to El Paso.
The reconstructed lhakhang now stands at the center of the university’s Centennial Plaza. Its highly decorated exterior and interior have been fully documented and described, and the building is open to the public by appointment.
—Erin Younger, exhibition curator and Preston Scott, program co-curator
Using pebbles from the Mall to add texture to a sculpture
Rosa Jeréz is from Ráquira, Colombia, a town in the Andean Highlands known for its exceptional clay and, consequently, its ceramicists. The main market square in Ráquira is lined with pots, plates, and vessels in the clay’s rich orange hue. Rosa comes from this lineage of artisans. Her mother was a potter, but it was expensive to get her pieces fired, so the family turned to cattle farming and basket making for a living. As Rosa got older she was inspired by the sculptures of saints she saw in the churches. Over time, after much trial and error, she developed her own style and technique for fashioning virgins, churches, and other figures inspired by the faces and clothing of the people she encounters in her daily life.
The artistic value of her work and the Andean characteristics of her virgins are now well known throughout the traditional arts world in Colombia. But this was not always the case. The first time an artisan buyer from Bogotá came to view her work, she told Rosa that her virgins were jarrapastrosas—crude and grotesque. Undeterred, Rosa continued to fill her home with her hand-formed figures. Eventually another buyer came and saw the beauty and artistry in her work. Now she’s been working with Artesanías de Colombia for many years, and her sculptures are consistently shown at folk art exhibitions and craft expositions.
At the 2011 Folklife Festival’s Colombia: The Nature of Culture program, Rosa hand-molded figures from Ráquira clay for the visitors who would congregate around her. As usual, she looked to her surroundings for inspiration: when it was time to decorate the skirt on the figure shown here, she adorned it with pebbles she found on the pathway near her presentation area. The result is fondly called the “Virgin of the Mall” and was a welcome addition to the Center’s collection, marrying Rosa’s traditions and techniques with the environment of the National Mall.
“On the last day of Mela! the effigies of Rāvana were burned. Inside that fire, when the effigies were burned, all the bad things that were inside of us were thrown into that fire.” So sang Banku Patua in West Bengal when showing villagers his painted story scroll of the 1985 Festival.
The story of the victory of Lord Rāma—who rescues his kidnapped wife Sita from the ten-headed demon king Rāvana—is reenacted each year throughout India during the ten-day Hindu celebration of Dassehra. At the 1985 Festival, the drama unfolded in the center of Mela! An Indian Fair.
A melā is a combination bazaar, street fair, and cultural festival that people travel far and wide to attend. At the composite melā in Washington, D.C., visitors were immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, and rituals of regional India. An outdoor “Learning Center” housed a performing space and workshop area devoted to ritual activities. There, Jamil Ahmed, Bal Mukand, Gopal Singh, and others from Uttar Pradesh worked to create the towering effigies of Rāvana and his allies, son Meghanada and brother Kumbhakarna. Visitors watched them carefully split and tie together the bamboo sticks that formed the structure of the flamboyant characters. These forms were then covered with papier-mâché, brightly painted, and embellished with oversized jewels. Once finished, the effigies were laid out on the ground, securely assembled, and raised by ropes to their upright positions.
On the evening of July 5, the epic confrontation between Rāma and Rāvana took place on the National Mall. At the drama’s climax, Rāma shoots a blazing arrow into the demon king, who explodes into flames. It is a noisy conflagration—all three effigies are packed with firecrackers. In the end, good triumphs over evil, and the audience is cleansed in the process.
The Mela! program lives on in people’s memories. Visitors recount their fascination watching figures emerge from the piles of thin bamboo sticks. Staff remember the complex logistics of mounting the finale—in essence a giant bonfire—on the country’s most restricted National Park. Fire trucks, firefighters, and emergency supplies were everywhere. For former Festival director Diana Parker, exposure to the distinctly non-Western practice of destroying something so exquisite for ritual purposes was both transfixing and unforgettable. All that remained was a 29-inch length of singed bamboo, which was used by staff for many years to talk about the purpose of the Festival, including its occasionally dramatic events—and the transience of some of them.
The Smithsonian Castle and Wisconsin program site are front and center on this painted wood plate. With musical notes raining down from above, artist Jean Giese used rosemaling—a Norwegian decorative painting style—to commemorate her experience at the 1998 Folklife Festival.
“Whether expressed through church, tavern, or home, the role of ethnic identity remains prominent in Wisconsin. Fourth- and fifth-generation Americans in Wisconsin are still quite cognizant of their ethnic origins, as pure or as varied as they may be.”
—Richard March, program curator
The 1998 Wisconsin program took place during the state’s sesquicentennial, its 150th anniversary of statehood. By focusing on the rich interplay between climate, geography, and economy—and the state’s rich ethnic diversity—the Festival brought to life a variety of Wisconsin’s regional traditions. Like so many immigrants before them, the Norwegians who arrived in the mid-nineteenth century left behind most of their traditional art practices. It took a few generations for interest in those roots to return, but when it did, rosemaling and acanthus carving, which decorated so many family heirlooms, became the focus of study and revival. Today the swirling floral patterns and abstract designs, whether painted or carved, are clear markers of Norwegian American identity.
Jean Giese credited her father with encouraging her early interest in painting. He was a Norwegian immigrant who supported his family by farming tobacco. He enjoyed woodcarving and allowed young Jean to decorate his carvings. She later attended rosemaling classes at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and remains active in the Norwegian cultural center in Norskedalen, Wisconsin. She passed on her devotion to Norwegian folk art to her daughter, who took up acanthus woodcarving with her husband. Their daughter in turn has carried rosemaling to the new medium of cake decoration.
Giese’s depiction of the 1998 Festival site realistically positions a red barn and several program tents in front of the Smithsonian Castle. The Washington Monument stands to the west and musical notes fill the sky, suggesting a lively Festival soundscape. After the Festival concluded, the Wisconsin program was restaged in Madison as the Wisconsin Folklife Festival, giving statewide audiences a chance to learn more about their own history and heritage, and honor the many people who preserve Wisconsin’s folklife.
This split-wood whittling achievement perplexed and enchanted Festival visitors in 1983. Artist William Richard perfected a wood carver’s form that originated in Europe and found a home in northwestern Maine, requiring skill, patience, and razor-sharp knives.
William Richard was the patriarch of three generations of Acadian/French American loggers and wood carvers. He was born in 1900 in New Brunswick, Canada, and moved to northwestern Maine to seek work in the woods. As described by folklorist Peggy Yocom, William Richard’s delicate fan towers are “mind-tricking sculptures” that conjure birds in flight or dancers’ swirling skirts. This carving consists of two fans perched on a vertical shaft that includes two round “balls-in-cages.”
After working several years in logging camps outside Phillips, Maine, Richard married and helped raise five children. He provided for his family by working as a logger and whittling small pieces for sale on the side. In the early 1930s, he learned to make the fan towers through an unusual apprenticeship:
“It was 1933, during the Depression, and to make ends meet, Richard, like many area woodsmen and farmers, made and sold beer and wine to add to the $1 a cord they got for chopping wood. For his efforts, he was arrested by Sheriff Leavitt and slapped into the Franklin County Jail. There he met fellow French woodsman Raymond Bolduc who taught Richard how to make the fan towers, a traditional art form known especially in Finland, Sweden, and Russia. The fans were once made throughout the boundary area of the United States and Canada by woodsmen in winter logging camps…”
—Peggy Yocom, folklorist
Richard participated in the 1976 and 1983 Folklife Festivals. He enjoyed hearing visitors speculate about his methods: were the balls pre-shaped and inserted into the cages? Were the fans made of Popsicle sticks glued together? In the end, he always set them straight: the fans were carved and bent from single pieces of wood—no glue involved. Although fan towers eventually spread as far west as Oregon, the double-fan tower remained the specialty of Richard and his mentor, Raymond Bolduc. Today, his grandson, Rodney “Butch” Richard continues to carve them, as had Butch’s father, Rodney Richard Sr.
“The point isn’t to recreate a sound from the Middle Ages or anything like that,” Ceri Rhys Matthews said about playing John Glenydd Evans’ traditional Welsh instruments at the 2009 Festival. “This is a modern movement. We make our own pipes and learn to play them because we like the sound.”
Wales is a dynamic and resilient nation located to the southwest of England. Its history is filled with upheavals, and its ancient traditions have often been interrupted—not least the creation and use of Welsh instruments and tunes. The fact that these traditions have survived and the genre is thriving is a testament to a long process of adaptation, reimagining, and reclamation highlighted in the Wales Smithsonian Cymru program.
Religious reforms in eighteenth-century Wales sought to discourage the use of traditional Welsh instruments, including the harp and fiddle. At the same time, church hymns sustained choral music and Gypsy musicians kept some of the traditional tunes in circulation. Today older tunes and traditional instruments are played proudly and in innovative ways by the musicians who have been shaping a future out of the past.
The instruments shown here are two that have made a strong comeback: the hornpipe (pibcorn) and bagpipes (piban cŵd). Their history has been traced back to the fourteenth century, but contemporary musicians had to rediscover how to make and play them. Museum collections have helped fill in the gaps: the Welsh National Museum at St. Fagan’s carefully analyzed historic examples for correct measurements and hints at techniques in their creation.
Ceri Rhys Matthews plays a John Evans bagpipe with Linda and Lisa Griffiths during the 2009 Festival.
For the 2009 program, our music advisors recommended John Glenydd Evans to represent instrument making. His instruments are considered some of the best made in Wales. His path to this skill was circuitous but perhaps ordained: he left school at fifteen and apprenticed as a carpenter. A serious accident in 1993 led him to reevaluate his life, and he decided to combine two of his loves in his work: traditional Welsh music and turning wood. The result is a catalog of in-demand instruments for the country’s finest musicians.
“Cleater Meaders’s pottery is a wonderful way to highlight not only the work of this important, multi-generation family of Southern potters but also the legacy of Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler, who was a great admirer of the potters’ skills and a pioneer in bringing national recognition to their work.”
In 1983, Cleater Meaders Jr. participated in the second celebration of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellows at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. His cousin, Lanier Meaders, received the fellowship that year, and many in the Meaders family came to the Festival to support him—exemplifying the skill, knowledge, and multi-generational practice behind this distinctive, regional pottery tradition. Cleater made wheel-thrown pots in the crafts tent and talked about making a syrup jug during a filmed segment preserved in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives.
Cleater Meaders Jr. describes his actions finishing a syrup jug as Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley looks on during the 1983 Folklife Festival.
Small-scale family-run potteries grew up in the American South during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The majority of their products were utilitarian: butter churns, whiskey jugs, milk pitchers, food storage jars. The Meaders family, headed at the time by John Milton Meaders, began making stoneware in 1893 in the foothills of White County, Georgia. Making pottery was a way to supplement their farming income and also provide storage vessels for themselves. The churn shown here was signed and fired in 1984. After retiring from a career building aircraft in 1978, Cleater returned to potting fulltime at his home in Byron, Georgia, where he used an old treadle kick wheel to turn clay he dug from land he owned in the mountains. In 1983 he built a wood-fired kiln on that land and may have fired the churn there, much as his forebears had done nearly a century earlier.
Even before his work at the Smithsonian, Ralph Rinzler was an inveterate field worker who kept his eyes open for exemplary traditional artists wherever he traveled. His forays down South, especially, exposed him to many regional traditions and fine practitioners who were unknown outside their local communities. Bringing their voices and talents to the fore became his passion—and the mission of the Folklife Festival.
It is no accident that Southern potters are so well known today, along with the music of Dewey Balfa and Doc Watson; they were all people Rinzler brought to national attention at the Festival. This work has gone on now for more than fifty years with the artists front and center: telling their stories, exemplifying excellence in practice, and representing the remarkable diversity of traditional cultural heritage throughout the world.
Because the Center is a research unit within the Smithsonian, not a museum, it never set out to build a collection from the Festival. But over the past fifty years, Festival artists and others have generously donated hundreds of objects to the office. Until recently, however, the records documenting them have been informally kept and knowledge about individual objects rested largely within the memories of staff. A simple inventory was started in the mid-1980s, but record-keeping has lagged as the work of producing the Festival takes precedence. Since I joined the Center as a Research Associate in 2014, the material culture collection has been the focus of my work: updating the records, writing labels, and conducting research to help celebrate the Festival’s fiftieth anniversary.
In making the selection of fifty objects to shed light on the Festival’s history, the Thai mask down the hall was an obvious pick: it is large, fierce, and demanding—but no one knew anything about it. “Thailand” is written on the right side, and “Long Live the King” scrawls across the front. This made it easy to think it was from the 1994 Thailand program. But after speaking with the program curator, it was clear that it wasn’t—that program focused on court music and dance, and this type of mask was not part of those traditions.
In summer 2016, intern Michelle Ibarra took on the quest to identify the mask. She eventually determined it was a “ghost mask” used in the Phi Ta Khon celebration in northern Thailand, and found that its maker, Wirayut Natsaengsri, participated in the 2007 Mekong River program. Her efforts are documented in the article “Searching for the Man behind the Mask.” Today Phi Ta Khon is heavily promoted as a tourist attraction but its origins are ancient and have ties to Buddhism and early agricultural rituals, which the practitioners still honor.
The Q’eswachaka rope bridge in the Cusco highlands of Peru—rebuilt hundreds of times over hundreds of years by the local communities—was reimagined and rebuilt on the National Mall in 2015. It became both the visual anchor and community center of Perú: Pachamama.
Through time and space, the bridge created a Festival community
“We didn’t plan for this to be the centerpiece of the Festival. It just came to us while we were doing fieldwork. We went down to Cusco and were looking at tradition and change. And here we found this bridge… While it is not used anymore by the alpacas for transportation, people use it as a footpath. But mainly they keep it for its symbolic value. Rebuilding the bridge every year and practicing this ancient knowledge gives them the strength to live with dignity.”
—Olivia Cadaval, program curator
The handwoven rope bridge has brought together the four indigenous farming communities in the area for centuries. Each has a specialty: the engineers come from one community; the grasses for the rope are gathered and processed by another. There is special expertise in braiding and tying the ropes, as well as stringing them across the canyon.
At each stage, the spiritual leader makes offerings that include coca leaves, potatoes, and corn. When the bridge is finished, the community gives thanks, celebrates with music, special foods, and a corn beverage. These practices were observed on the Mall with only slight modification.
“The whole experience on the Mall was very moving. The Quechua builders understood that being at the Festival was about showing the process. When it came time to throw the ropes between our mountains (two shipping containers) and over our river (the space between), they needed some help. They turned to the Afro Peruvians. These are communities that didn’t know each other, hadn’t ever met, and all of a sudden they are working together. Musician Miguel Ballumbrosio said it was a highlight of his time at the Festival. At the Mall, the bridge itself created a community!”
Made by itinerant potters on the fringes of Korean society, large earthenware storage jars—onggi—were “as common in Korea as refrigerators are in the United States.” So wrote Festival director Ralph Rinzler after a research trip to Korea in 1971.
For centuries, onggi were essential to preparing and storing the core staples of the Korean diet: soy bean and red chili paste, spicy kimchi, and more. The low-fired earthenware had a distinctive porosity that allowed oxygen to enter without letting liquids evaporate, aiding the fermentation process required for these foods and condiments. With that trait, onggi persisted for decades after the introduction of commercial wares.
The onggi making industry was little known and poorly documented outside of Korea until the 1970s. On his first trip to Korea in 1971, Folklife Festival director Ralph Rinzler was captivated by the large, lidded jars he saw clustered outside most village homes. He returned the next year to do more research, and again with anthropologist Robert Sayers in the 1980s. Such thorough fieldwork is a mainstay of the Folklife Festival, which featured onggi pottery in the 1982 Korea program.
In the case of onggi pottery, there was much to learn. Rinzler and Sayers started with the lives of the artisans and were surprised to learn that the makers were near outcasts of Korean society. The potters were confined to company housing and frequently had to move as production demands shifted. Ten years after his first visit, Rinzler found that Korea was much changed and many of the rural pottery sites had disappeared or been consolidated. He also noted a serious shortage of apprentices to carry on the tradition. At the same time, collectors began purchasing the older vessels. Commercial food producers continued to use onggi to reinforce the authenticity of their product.
Master artist Alfredo López of Ayacucho, Peru, takes us on a cultural journey through his storytelling shrine, acquainting us with a world of belief, the life of cattlemen, and the customs of communities in the Peruvian Andes.
A skilled storyteller sculpts a cultural journey into Andean life
This large, colorful retablo is exemplary of Alfredo López’s finest work. It holds layers of meaning about his community’s heritage and the details he chooses to depict. He learned to make retablos from his father and grandfather, and today still uses his grandfather’s molds. During the tumultuous 1980s when the militant Marxist-Leninist “Shining Path” insurrection took over the highlands, many families fled the region. López’s family managed to stay, and his grandfather was pivotal in keeping the retablo tradition alive.
Retablos grew from early portable altars carried to South America by Spanish missionaries. Saint Mark—the patron saint of farm animals—became a favorite figure of cattle ranchers and was believed to protect the herds from disease and theft. Thus did the worlds of colonists, missionaries, and indigenous people begin to entwine. The inclusion of cattle with everyday life and religious practice still mark the retablos of Ayacucho—this box included.
—Olivia Cadaval and Rafael Varón Gabai, program curators
Made of corrugated cardboard and crepe paper, then decorated with paint, tinsel, and flashy jewels, this swan-shaped headdress was worn in The Commonwealth of the Bahamas “Junkanoo rush”—joining more than a hundred other costumed participants.
From an island culture shaped by centuries of migration
Program curator John Franklin opened his Festival essay by challenging the touristic view of the Bahamas as a warm, sunny, winter getaway from the United States. His overview called up the four centuries of migration that have defined the Bahamas’ past and continue to shape its future. It’s a complex story of outsiders coming and going—Spanish, English, enslaved and freed Africans, American tourists, and more recently Chinese, Syrian, and Greek immigrants. Throughout it all have been the traditions of festival arts and performance, known to many outside the Caribbean as Carnival, and in the Bahamas as the Christmas masquerade of Junkanoo. The roots of these pubic celebrations of freedom are tied to West Africa and have been transformed by generations of Afro Bahamians dreaming of and finally experiencing liberation from enslavement.
Today’s elaborate masquerades combine music, dance, costume, and drama in stunning performances that sustain their participants throughout the year. In the Bahamas, Junkanoo is celebrated in parades that begin in the early mornings on December 26 and January 1 and last for hours. People prepare nearly all year for these judged, thematic performances. During the parades, men and women of all backgrounds coexist in a kind of “time out of time” where satire, protest, and affirmation are safely expressed and acted out.
“It’s a leveler,” curator Diana N’Diaye says. “You may be dancing next to the next prime minister who might be dancing next to a janitor. It’s like, ‘We’re all Bahamian; we’re all here.’” It’s a creative way for individuals to express shared values related to freedom, heritage, and different forms of expressive culture.
The 1994 Bahamas program included more than a hundred participants from seventeen Junkanoo groups. As in the Bahamas, they staged a “rush out” at the end of the Festival and everyone joined in. While thousands may join the parade in the Bahamas, hundreds did on the National Mall—giving Festival visitors a small taste of the transporting experience of Junkanoo.
“The coffee pot served as the welcoming image for the 2005 Oman: Desert, Oasis, and Sea program,” recalled retired deputy director Richard Kennedy. For him, “it remains a symbol of the success of that Festival in a very charged atmosphere.”
Coffee pots as symbols of Omani heritage and hospitality
The idea for Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea grew out of what curator Richard Kennedy described as the progressive “disintegration of understanding of Muslim culture” after the events of September 11, 2001. The incoming American ambassador to Oman had seen the Festival’s Tibet program in 2000 and asked Kennedy if the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage might feature a Muslim country. Kennedy brought the idea forward, and the Oman program was born. In Kennedy’s memory, it was a dream program with creative collaborators, strong in-country support, and a positive experience on the National Mall.
The two hand-formed dallah—coffee pots—highlighted here were presented to the Center as gifts from the Sultanate of Oman. For those who might imagine a dark Starbucks brew being poured from the spouts, visitors to the Folklife Festival learned that Omani coffee is very different. Green coffee beans are lightly roasted in a pan over an open fire and ground into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle. The coffee powder is mixed with boiling water in the dallah, along with cardamom, rosewater, and saffron. The host then uses the dallahto pour the brewed coffee into small cups called finjan. The resulting beverage is tea-colored and served to guests along with dates and other sweets. No polite guest declines coffee when offered.
Beyond their function, these pots also represent the rich heritage of Omani metalwork. Crafts have long played an important role in Oman’s economy, and the souks (marketplaces) of the oasis towns house permanent workshops where artisans practice and sell their wares. There is a rich interplay between these production centers and the port capitals that have long functioned as gateways for new ideas, materials, and peoples throughout the region. The resulting craft culture in Oman is a lively synthesis of tradition and change, with discernible Arab, Indian, and East African influences. For the Center, these pots embody the value of direct cultural exchange that created a spirit of friendship, welcome, and collaboration.
The painter of this Tibetan scroll is unknown to us, but the purpose was clear. It was made as a gift. The iconography is unique to the occasion: the 2000 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Tibetan culture.
Washington landmarks join Buddhist imagery to help fund a culturally sensitive program
One of the most beautiful objects gifted to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is this Tibetan thangka—a contemporary religious scroll created in support of the 2000 Tibetan Culture Beyond the Land of Snows program. It is one of ten commemorative thangkas commissioned for major donors by the Conservancy for Tibetan Art and Culture, a local collaborator in Washington, D.C. The program title refers to people who are Tibetan but now living outside the historical and ethnographic boundaries of Tibet.
The thangka’s iconography is distinctively blended, not unlike the Festival itself. It features the central figure of Chenrezig—the embodiment of the compassion of Buddha—surrounded by multiple recognizable symbols relating to his core attributes of kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. Below the lotus platform are more symbols of Buddhism, and below those, clear renderings of D.C. landmarks: the Smithsonian Castle, the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Capitol.
While the thangka was created before the Festival by an artist who did not participate in the program, the work can be read as a foreshadowing of the event in which Tibetans from all over the world—including His Holiness the Dalai Lama—gathered to speak of their heritage, identity, and experiences “beyond the land of snows,” memorably capturing the setting and transformative potential of the upcoming program.
During the 2002 Silk Road program, the Mall became a modern version of the ancient Eurasian trading route. Visitors could stroll from the towering Nara Gate at the eastern edge toward an open Venetian Piazza to the west. Beautiful Turkish çini plates helped lure visitors into the Ceramics Courtyard.
Mounted in 2002, The Silk Road remains a standout program
Silk Road was the perfect Festival to follow the events of September 11, 2001. Although planning had begun several years earlier, the program’s theme of “Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust” tied past and present together. Yo-Yo Ma, the visionary cellist and artistic director of the Silk Road Project, Inc., was a presenting partner. Through his own travels and work in different musical styles, he was captivated by the legendary trade route and how music traveled and changed along it.
To talk to anyone who attended the 2002 Festival is to hear a long string of superlatives. Richard Kurin, Center director at the time, reported that “more than 400 artists, cooks, musicians, and scholars—Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs—from more than two dozen nations, speaking more than thirty languages” traveled to Washington that year. Program curator Richard Kennedy recalled, “Never before has a Festival been devoted to one topic; never before has a Festival offered such research, conceptual, and logistical challenges… It has been a daunting but exhilarating effort.” Over one million people attended.
The Silk Road program remains a singular event in the Festival’s history.
The twenty-acre Festival site was transformed into its own Silk Road crossroads by innovative designer Rajeev Sethi. Visitors could travel east or west between legendary landmarks such as the Xi’an Tower in China or Samarkand Square in Uzbekistan. Crafts flanked the landmarks in material-themed pavilions: Silk Grove, Paper Garden, Ceramics Courtyard. In the courtyard, Turkish ceramicists displayed their wares alongside Chinese, Japanese, and Bangladeshi artisans. Advisor Henry Glassie helped visitors understand what they were seeing in the modern Islamic çini wares:
“Turkish potters at first imitated the blue-and-white porcelain of Jingdezhen [China]. Then in a surging series of innovations, they made it their own in the sixteenth century, adding new colors, notably a luscious tomato red, and pushing the designs toward natural form and Islamic reference.”
Mehmet Gürsoy was one of four Turkish ceramicists at the Festival. His studio is located in Kütahya, where he is known as a teacher and entrepreneur. An online exhibition about his work is included below.
Ethel Wright Mohamed of Belzoni, Mississippi, became a favorite Festival participant during the 1974 Mississippi program. Ten years earlier, she had turned to embroidery to commemorate life with her husband who had recently died, carrying on an age-old domestic art form in a distinctively personal way.
Envisioning a bird’s eye view of the 1976 Bicentennial program
“The lovely thing about this piece is that it reminds me of people. We brought in a cable car (for Working Americans) and had guys from San Francisco who rang the bells. They all had their own distinctive kind of pattern ring. I can hear those sounds again when I look at this…”
–Diana Parker, Festival director
Working with the Folklife Festival designer to plot the layout of the 1976 Bicentennial program, Ethel Mohamed sketched and then stitched a remarkable prediction of the great American celebration set to unfold on the National Mall. The Festival spanned three months and included a large roster of participants who cycled in and out of Washington every week for twelve weeks. In addition to the core Festival areas, Mohamed stitched lively tableaus throughout: children playing, a couple kissing, a rabbit sneaking lettuces. The final embroidery is five feet long and hews to the plan so well its program elements can still be easily deciphered.
As a creative endeavor, Mohamed’s memory picture is a beloved object at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and new details are noticed on almost every viewing. Two figures central to the Festival’s history are included: Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley—who enthusiastically supported founding director Ralph Rinzler’s plans to create an event to give voice to the country’s traditional artists—kneels in the upper right corner to feed some hungry ducks. It is a clever nod to his academic field of ornithology. Down front and center, Rinzler plays a fiddle on the mainstage, identified by an “R” on his right sleeve. Mohamed herself sits under a tent, stitching yet another memory picture. This engaging piece is a tour de force of narrative embroidery that not only reflects Mohamed’s special talents but conveys her love of the Festival community that embraced her so warmly each time she came to Washington.
Master stonemason Selwyn Jones, an expert in restoring Welsh architecture, carved this apex stone during the 2009 Festival. By all accounts, he was a highly skilled participant and a captivating presenter. His tent was always filled with people watching him work, asking questions, and trying their hand at chiseling and carving the stone.
The Wales Smithsonian Cymru program was built around the theme of sustainability. Centuries of tradition, change, and innovation have resulted in Wales’s current reputation as a world leader in sustainable practices. Few things in architectural practice are more sustainable than historic preservation—an endeavor that maximizes the use of existing materials, reduces waste, and helps preserve the identity-giving character of a community and its institutions. As curator Betty Belanus wrote in the program book, “sustainability is built upon the rediscovery and reinterpretation of older practices.” Understanding those traditions instills pride in the past and can hold solutions to challenges communities face today.
With nearly thirty years of experience, Selwyn Jones is adept in many areas of stonework. He first trained as a metal sculptor, then apprenticed with a stonemason. In his own words, he is “passionate about traditional skills” and openly shares his enthusiasm with others. Restoring historic buildings gives them new life, and being part of that process connects Jones directly to the roots of his heritage.
Jones reviews the tools he uses and the apex stone he is carving during the 2009 Wales program.
“Anything to do with stone, we can restore it,” Jones explained at the Festival. This can include taking a building completely down and rebuilding it, replacing a few stones, or—as in the case of an apex stone—replicating the shape and design of that distinctive church feature. The four-pointed apex is made of English limestone, a building material known for its tight, smooth grain that “holds the cut well.” The layout allowed him to work on all sides of the stone. He encouraged both men and women to help chip out stone, noting: “You don’t need physical strength, but you do need patience!” Many who tried their hand at carving stone at the Festival would agree!
Among the most important projects undertaken by Festival director Ralph Rinzler was the support and revival of Southern crafts in collaboration with Nancy Sweezy. Jugtown Pottery in North Carolina was central to the story. Decades after first meeting Rinzler, Jugtown potter Vernon Owens crafted this memorial churn to honor his friend.
Revival of Jugtown Pottery and a personal tribute to Ralph Rinzler
When Ralph Rinzler came to the Smithsonian from the Newport Folk Festival in 1967, he brought with him an expanding concept of a “folklife” festival. He had begun inviting craftspeople and artisans to Newport and saw “folklife” as all facets of a community’s culture, music, worship, handicrafts, food, and work traditions. In tandem with folklorist and potter Nancy Sweezy, they formed Country Roads, an organization dedicated to conserving Southern crafts. One of the workshops they supported was North Carolina’s Jugtown Pottery, established in 1921. Sweezy had moved south to work at Jugtown in the late 1960s and through Country Roads helped revive interest in the many potters living in the Carolina region. Country Roads purchased Jugtown in 1968, and Sweezy later authored the landmark book, Raised in Clay.
Vernon Owens grew up North Carolina and learned pottery from his father, who learned from his. His grandfather, in fact, was one of the first potters hired at Jugtown in 1921. In 1960, Owens hired Sweezy and later worked closely together to develop new and safer glazes, improved firing techniques, and refined market strategies for their distinctive, functional pieces. Owens bought back Jugtown from Country Roads in 1983 and opened the Jugtown Museum in 1988. There are now more than seventy potteries in the Seagrove, North Carolina area. Vernon is widely recognized for his mastery, and he was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1996.
After Rinzler passed away in 1994, there was a memorial gathering at the Highlander Center in New Market, Tennessee. Many of his friends from his life in folklore attended. Owens was one of many whose life had been affected by Rinzler’s work, and he crafted a special memorial churn in his honor. It was later donated by Rinzler’s wife to the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where it sits proudly in the entry display case among a collection of Southern pots.
Using a chainsaw and file, Rodney Richard Sr. carved a nearly life-size French-Canadian woodsman named Pierre on the National Mall in 1983. Twenty years later, he came back and carved a dog to keep the woodsman company. Together they greet visitors to the front lobby of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The Story +
Rodney Richard Sr. (1929–2015)
Rangeley, Maine, U.S.A.
2005 Forest Service, Culture, and Community
When life and work combine and carry on
“Mr. Richard’s traditional wood carving grew seamlessly out of his life’s experiences.”
–Peggy Yocom, folklorist and curator
Rodney Richard Sr. (1929-2015) represented the logging heritage of western Maine at three different Folklife Festivals. His father William and son Rodney “Butch” joined him at different times, highlighting the multigenerational skills of the Richard family—born in the woods and carried on in public view.
For Richard, his talent with a whittling knife began as a “little shaver” when he learned to carve from his father. In time, he began using his chainsaw to create larger figures. He was fond of saying, “The chainsaw is just like a jack knife, only a really powerful one!” He eventually became a well-known carver and is part of the legacy of “logger art” that developed around the North American forest industry.
Rodney Richard Sr. talks about learning carving in an interview recorded during the 2005 Forest Service program.
In addition to carving bears and other animals, Richard took care to depict the occupational skills that were so important to the world of work he knew, in part because he saw the old-time knowledge slipping away as new machines and methods replaced the old. Pierre, for instance, rests against a peavey hook, a hand tool used to maneuver felled trees. His sleeves are rolled up, ready to execute his next move. In 2005, Richard returned to the Festival to participate in the Forest Service program, where he carved a small dog to keep Pierre company.
Fondly known as the “Mad Whittler” in Rangeley, Maine, Richard co-founded the Rangeley Lakes Region Logging Museum (now the Maine Forestry Museum) in 1979. In 1981, the museum hosted its first Logging Festival, an event that has been going strong ever since. Among the skills the museum highlights are chainsaw carving and whittling.
No sooner had staff, volunteers, and interns put the 2016 Folklife Festival to bed than we turned our attention to producing Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration to welcome the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Tens of thousands from every corner of the United States and beyond encountered the steady backbeat of music over three days filled with reflection and celebration.
On the morning of Saturday, September 25, 2016, amid the peel of ringing bells and thunderous applause, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors to the public. While the broadcast media focused on the presidents, civic leaders, and entertainment giants who gathered on the museum grounds, another story—stories to be exact—was unfolding across the street. Tens of thousands made their way through closed streets and security checks to witness the museum’s opening and participate in Freedom Sounds. Co-produced by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the museum, the three-day event drew upon the social power of music to explore an enduring paradox: this nation was built on the ideals of freedom and equity, yet for generations it denied African Americans inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Through story and song, Freedom Sounds responded by paying homage to the resistance and creativity of a people as well as those who stood in solidarity with them.
“A clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable and shake us out of familiar narratives. But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect. That’s the American story that this museum tells—one of suffering and delight; one of fear but also of hope; of wandering in the wilderness and then seeing out on the horizon a glimmer of the Promised Land.”
—President Barack Obama, September 25, 2016
The museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, frequently reminds visitors that NMAAHC is a place of joy as well as a site for reflecting upon this country’s painful past. Its exhibitions and programs bear witness to the many ways that African Americans stood with strength, integrity, and yes, joy, even as others tried to bend and break their bodies and spirits. Visitors to Freedom Sounds found this sentiment woven throughout the opening weekend as they listened to diverse sounds of resilience from each of the festival’s five stages. From students and emerging artists to master musicians and superstars, performers shared music of sustenance and inspiration.
It is fitting that those who work on the Folklife Festival would go on to oversee NMAAHC’s public celebration on the National Mall of the United States, a place we have called home for fifty years. Against a backdrop of civic unrest and the clarion call of justice and liberty for all, the very first Festival in 1967 presented similar stories and music. Then, as now, our mission, vision, and values are in deep alignment with the words Martin Luther King, Jr. shared on the National Mall some four years prior to the Festival’s founding. He spoke of creating “the beloved community” as the culmination of diligent and hard work: “The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends.”
The graphics used on the site and for staff t-shirts, designed by Josue Castilleja, represent the commitment of staff, volunteers, and interns past and present to demand the best of ourselves as we join others in building a just and creative world. Like our colleagues across the Smithsonian, we hope that our efforts contribute toward healing still present wounds and bringing change where it is still so desperately needed.
This Chinelo costume, replete with velvet, lace, and vibrant trim, includes detailed beadwork of legendary figures that inspired the maker: Egyptian goddess Isis adorns the front; a female Aztec warrior kneels on the back. The costume was worn by dancer Karem Rodríguez Pacheco of Atlatlahucan, Mexico.
“For the México program, we worked very closely with specialists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, linguists, and researchers who took us to the sites. The community members became part of defining why it was important for them to come to the Festival. I remember in Atlatlahucan they dressed me as a Chinelo with the costume of one of the members of the troupe. They also taught me the dance step—a little awkward kick meant to poke fun
—Olivia Cadaval, program curator
The Chinelos de Atlatlahucan are a carnivalesque dance troupe that form part of Mexico’s broad repertoire of dramas and masquerades drawing from European and Indigenous traditions. Dressed in elaborate velvet gowns and headdresses from head to toe, masked Chinelos playfully mock the white Spanish colonizers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During Carnival and community fiestas, they joyfully dance through the town accompanied by the local Banda de Morelos.
Watch the Chinelos de Atlatlahuacan perform during the 2010 México program.
The word Chinelo derives from the Náhuatl word tzineloa, which means “hip shake,” a movement intended to make the Chinelo look awkward or disjointed, adding to the ridicule. El brincón, or jump, is a traditional and lively dance, accompanied by a brass band, seen especially during Carnival festivities.
Chinelo costumes are passed on over the years and redesigned over time. This costume was once decorated with a yellow boa. It was last redesigned by Sergio Aurelio Rodríguez and Margarita Rebecca Pacheco, then worn by their daughter Karem Rodríguez Pacheco during the 2010 Festival. The scarf is used with the mask and headdress to protect the forehead and face from being rubbed by the mesh. Beads hang over the face, and a fully beaded and painted back panel is worn like a cape.
Chinelos have become part of the identity of the state of Morelos in Mexico, and Chinelo dancers now perform the dances at various festivals in the United States.
In Hong Kong, 1,000 bamboo poles and 200 wooden columns were loaded onto a ship bound for Washington, D.C. Six weeks later on the National Mall, five craftsmen lashed these together with nylon ties, forming a giant gateway. At three stories tall and 112 feet long, it was one of the largest structures ever built for the Festival.
Drawing on the skills of scaffold workers and theater builders to create a celebratory gateway
The Tian Tian Xiang Shang Gateway was a flower plaque, a traditional Chinese bamboo structure built for festive and memorial events, such as weddings, anniversaries, and business openings. Lightweight and modular, flower plaques are ephemeral and their materials reusable. Large-scale examples are most common in southern China, especially in Hong Kong.
This installation embodied the intersection of traditional and contemporary arts, vernacular knowledge and scientific engineering. Hong Kong-based artist Danny Yung and his studio Zuni Icosahedron produced the structure in collaboration with master builder Choi Wing Kei.
Yung is a pioneering artist known for experimental work in visual and performing arts. His flower plaque design included traditional motifs and elements, such as the names of all 100+ program participants, along with congratulatory text and greetings. As a creative mash-up, the installation reinterpreted a phrase associated with Mao Zedong, invited contributions from 32 other artists, and incorporated 1,400 bamboo wind chimes, creating a sound dimension innovative for flower plaques.
Choi began learning bamboo construction from his father when he was thirteen years old. His business is one of a handful in Hong Kong with the skills to work in all aspects of bamboo structure building, including scaffolding, ritual structures, and temporary theaters. He welcomed the opportunity to try something new for the Festival, collaborate with a contemporary artist, and build outside of Hong Kong under different construction requirements.
Preparing for the installation, Yung and Choi consulted with our production staff as well as Smithsonian engineers and fire safety officers, making changes to the structure, design, and materials as needed. A week before opening day, Choi and his team of four unloaded ten tons of bamboo and lumber from shipping containers. With no rigging or electric tools, they built the structure length by length, expertly lashing together the poles with nylon ties, extending it vertically as they climbed. After the Festival, in the same way, but in reverse, they took it down, repacking the materials for return to Hong Kong and use in their next project.
The 1992 Folklife Festival commemorated the Columbus Quincentenary, providing an opportunity to reflect on the profound forces that shaped life in the Americas over the preceding 500 years. For the New Mexico program, participants representing Native Americans, early Hispanic settlers, and later immigrants came together to discuss the complex underpinnings of the state’s robust regional culture and land-based lifeways that are anything but unchanging. Santa Clara Pueblo pottery was one of the traditional arts featured in the program and was set up in a large plaza surrounded by adobe structures.
Madeline Naranjo was born in 1916. She traveled to Washington with her daughter Frances, also a potter, and Tessie Naranjo (unrelated), who wrote about pottery in the Festival program book and helped present their work on the National Mall. The pottery area included works in progress and a display of the deeply etched and beautifully burnished pottery for which Santa Clara potters are so well known. Close observers could learn that the lustrous sheen on the surface is achieved by carefully polishing with a small, smooth stone after the pot is formed and carved.
“Pottery-making is more than the simple creation of an object from earth. It speaks to a feeling that we are of the earth, that the pot and the person are one…. Generations of Pueblo mothers have taught their children the making and meaning of pottery. In all the 19 Pueblo communities in New Mexico, this connection with clay has been repeated and taught generation after generation.”
—Tessie Naranjo, Santa Clara Puelbo
Pueblo pottery—in its many forms, colors, and surface design techniques—has drawn collectors since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the railroad and later automobiles brought tourists into the Southwest. A local craft art economy grew and remains strong today. The Festival had a robust Marketplace that year, including this beautiful bowl.
Established by Congress in 1846 to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge, the Smithsonian celebrated its sesquicentennial in 1996. To mark the occasion, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage organized and produced the Institution’s 150th birthday party, which attracted 600,000 celebrants on August 10 and 11.
August 10, 1846, was an eventful day in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Congress enacted legislation to establish the Smithsonian Institution, and President James K. Polk signed the bill that same day. The Institution’s centennial in August 1946 saw only a small exhibition inside the National Museum of Natural History, so hopes were high for something bigger to mark the sesquicentennial in 1996.
Many Smithsonian staffers were initially unenthusiastic. It would be terribly hot in August, Congress would be in recess, and it would cost a lot of money. Nevertheless, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which already had some thirty years’ experience producing the Folklife Festival, agreed to take on the task. Since the early 1990s, the Center has produced a number of large-scale special events: America’s Reunion on the Mall in conjunction with President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration; Southern Crossroads: A Festival of the American South celebrating the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta; National World War II Reunion in honor of the National World War II Memorial dedication in 2004; First Americans Festival concurring with the National Museum of the American Indian opening in 2004; and Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
Among the gifts received by the Smithsonian for its 150th birthday was this commemorative plaque, created by DeVon Smith (1926–2003) of Wampum, Pennsylvania, which coincidentally was celebrating its bicentennial in 1996. Smith was born five miles from Wampum and served in the U.S. Army during WWII. In 1947, he began a career of professional hitchhiking. He set records for the fastest time to hitch in all 48 states (33 days) and for the most cumulative miles (290,980). In the 1970s, he returned to Wampum, where he bought and sold scavenged items—such as the materials for this plaque, which cost Smith a total of 13 cents. Painted on the plaque are the words, “Opening doors from the past for the future,” which pay tribute not only to the Smithsonian, but also to Smith’s own creative spirit.
Matachines dancer María Teresa González explains how she embroidered her dance skirt: “Each person chooses what he or she likes, something that has special meaning to them. I chose to use the small carrizo (river cane). I use them as beads and to form a cross. It’s a kind of prayer.”
The matachines dance is a folk Catholic tradition that honors various saints, religious icons, or liturgical feast days. During the 1987 Folklife Festival, the Matachines de la Santa Cruz de Laredo, Texas, honored the Holy Cross with a procession down the National Mall. Organizer, embroiderer, and dancer Teresita González proudly danced at this once-in-a-lifetime event with the nagüilla, or skirt, embroidered for this occasion with the emblems of the cross and chalice. The nagüilla was trimmed with three tiers of bangles strung with jingle bells and pieces of river cane gathered from the banks of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo. In addition to being a personal identity marker, the nagüilla—with its bells and reeds—is an instrument.
Listen to the sounds of the nagüilla as the Matachines troupe from Laredo, Texas moves through the Festival site.
The troupe followed a decorated cross down the Mall, forming dance patterns in time to the persistent rhythms of the accordion and drum. The ringing bells and clanging of the reeds on the nagüillas accentuated the sounds. Each dancer also shook a gourd rattle. The cadence of the music and energetic stepping drew visitors from across the Festival who eagerly followed the procession.
Cloth (velvet, corduroy, ribbons), river reeds, bells, sequins
38” L x 18” W
38” L x 18” W
Traditions can be powerful enough to link oceans. These coiled baskets created by African American basket sewers from the Low Country of South Carolina are part of a deep and unbroken connection to African heritage that dates from the 1700s.
Experienced African farmers enslaved and forced to work in American plantations brought the tradition of coiled sweetgrass basket making to the United States as part of a broader repertoire of farming knowledge and expertise. Baskets were originally created from locally available materials such as bulrush, palmetto, and sweetgrass to winnow rice, hold food, and transport cotton. With diminishing use of baskets in farming, basket sewers in South Carolina continued to make and use baskets for their homes, and eventually to offer them for sale to tourists at outdoor markets. In the 1920s, heritage craft schools such as Penn Center taught these traditional arts as a valuable occupational skill.
National Heritage Fellow Mary Jackson demonstrated the art of Low Country basket sewing at the 1996 Folklife Festival’s American South program. The baskets in the Center’s collection were made for sale in the Festival Marketplace by Marguerite S. Middleton, another well-known basket sewer. Supporting traditional artists by marketing and selling their work was an early hallmark of the Folklife Festival. The 1976 program on the African Diaspora, in fact, was one of the first places sweetgrass baskets were available for purchase outside of the South. At the time, most of the baskets were sold from outdoor stalls along Route 17 in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
As recognition of the tradition’s connections to African heritage and its role in American history has grown, so has the demand for the baskets and their growth into an art form. In a move to protect the source of their weaving materials, basket makers formed the Mount Pleasant Sweetgrass Basketmakers Association to protect the wild sweetgrass. The members work together to keep the tradition alive, advocate for fair prices, and maintain high standards of African American basket making.
These skills are passed on in African American families throughout the Low Country of South Carolina, and the baskets have been become a source of both income and creative expression. They are forceful reminders of an enduring African American history and heritage.