Connecting Communities through Cultural Exchange
As a participant in the Smithsonian’s Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), I was invited to be a volunteer in the Folklife Festival to learn about basketry techniques, as well as to engage with the presenting artists and Festival visitors. I spent my day with Dora Flor Alba Briceño, a basket weaver from the Andean Highlands of Colombia. She makes baskets from a material called junco that grows rapidly in Lake Fúquene. She learned basket weaving from her grandmother, which she has passed down to her children and grandchildren. Dora Flor is recognized for her fine work and has won many awards.
At the Festival, Dora showed one of her spectacular pieces through photographs that she had brought with her from Colombia. The photograph depicted a large basket, at least ten feet in height, which was commissioned for a parade in her community. Many of the Festival visitors were astonished and gained a better appreciation for her skill and talent as a weaver. During my time with Dora, she produced three baskets and hundreds of visitors, of varied ages and knowledge of Colombia, were engaged by her nimble hands and her wonderful smile. Dora invited children to participate by showing them the knots and letting them have a go for themselves. A few visitors even chose to stick around for her to complete a large flower vase.
Not only did I learn a lot from Dora Flor, but I also learned from the visitors that stopped by. Many of the Spanish speakers that visited the Folklife Festival were gracious enough to translate Dora’s words for the non-Spanish-speaking visitors. Several, who acknowledged Colombia as their original home, talked about the places where they had lived, the diverse cultures that reside within the region, and the current sociopolitical climate. The Festival atmosphere facilitated conversations and cultural exchanges that enabled rich dialogue among the groups of visitors and artists. I have no doubt that these interactions with the Colombian participants, whether through viewing the productions of art, participating in traditional games, or engaging in conversations, generated new perceptions of Colombia and the world we live in.
After a long day and a sore throat from many conversations, I left the Festival not only with a new understanding of Colombia and the unique cultural traditions of the people that live there, but also with a new appreciation for innovative ways of learning and connecting with others.
Gina Watkinson is a graduate student in the American Indian studies program at the University of Arizona. She is among 12 students who assisted Festival artists as part of the Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology (SIMA), a program offered by the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.