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  • Themes for the 2018 Catalonia Program

    Diables celebration in Vilafranca, Catalonia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

    Diables celebration in Vilafranca, Catalonia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

    Catalonia is a distinctive society in northeastern Spain, bound by the Pyrenees to the north and the Ebro River delta to the south. Long known as a “welcoming country” (pais d’acollida), Catalonia has been defined by its location and thousand-year history of social and cultural mixing.

    Evidence of this history appears in local communities stretching across the region: Romanesque churches and cathedrals dedicated to local saints, castles that separated Christian kingdoms and the Muslim Caliphate of Al-Andalus during the Middle Ages, modernist masterpieces by Antoni Gaudí and his protégés, and contemporary architectural monuments that reference Catalonia’s role as an international hub for technology and innovation.

    Various political regimes, including the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975, criminalized much of Catalan language and culture, but thanks to their resilience, many Catalans have poured their energy and creativity into strengthening Catalan language, which now has more than ten million speakers. They have also built cultural organizations that celebrate local cultural expressions, even as they have integrated more than a million new immigrants.

    With its roots in the Catalan Renaissance of the mid-1800s, Catalans have channeled their bold creativity into these cultural heritage enterprises to ensure the vitality of their local cultures and their livelihoods. The 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will tell the story of Catalonia’s living cultural heritage through four major themes.

    Throughout the year, Catalan culture thrives in public spaces and emphasizes convivència—living together and making space for difference.  In villages, towns, and cities, everyday life in Catalonia revolves paradoxically around a civic calendar marked by the feasts of the patron saints (festes majors). The streets fill with people and vendors hawking food and mementos, and then elaborate masquerades parade through the main plazas and long streets called rambles. Giants decked out in rich fabrics and jewels dance with slow intentionality, while devils wear black capes and set off dramatic fireworks.

    At other times of year, people actively inhabit public space, promenading in the plazasof small townsat dusk, filling streets and cafes in cities, performing traditional cultural forms like human towers, playing soccer and practicing tai chi in parks.  This convivència allows people to share public space, even as they express and explore their differences.

    The Catalan commitment to participation in a vital public life has given birth to a remarkable and resilient network of cultural associations that brings people together to strengthen and enrich Catalan cultural life. During the Catalan Renaissance, many wealthier Catalans created “athenaeums” with regular meetings to teach Catalan language, explore the arts, and enrich local community life.

    By the end of the nineteenth century, working-class Catalans had developed powerful unions to advocate for their rights in the industrializing economy. These two social phenomena merged to create a culture of “associationism” where many Catalans belong to several culturally oriented non-governmental organizations. These local enterprises produce concerts of classical and choral music, celebrate historical dance forms, pass on traditional cultural expressions, and more. At the same time, they create a strong social fabric, where Catalans collaborate to sustain their local cultural life.

    Catalans embrace cultural enterprise and creative freedom, using their strong traditional culture to fuel creativity and innovation. Family-run businesses like butcher shops and vineyards pass family recipes from one generation to the next at the same time that they explore new models of production. Collectives that market wine, olive oil, and rice bring local community producers together to share the costs of processing, packaging, distribution, and marketing.

    Specialized companies produce steam-punk festival art installations—just one of many cutting-edge innovations in the performing arts. A wide variety of new festivals have emerged—events like the Sonar festival, now a global phenomenon. Other companies create and distribute children’s games that teach highly cherished values like collaboration. Catalans are actively engaged in cultural enterprises that sustain—and transform—their traditional art forms.

    Through a deep sense of place, Catalans have long expressed their creativity through exploring distinctive building traditions. Since legends of the Black Madonna of Montserrat emerged in the 800s, Catalans have cultivated and celebrated their relationship to the landscape and local variations of their region. The Catalan Renaissance emphasized a familiarity with the countryside, and in recent years, young people have hiked and camped all over Catalonia with the Scouting movement and other excursionist associations.

    This deep sense of place also manifests in an appreciation for local building traditions. Dry stone masonry has a celebrated history, despite its humble origins as a trade linked to farmers who needed low-cost storage for tools and water. Since Roman times, plain-tiled Catalan vaults have been used to create gently arched ceilings. Employed by Modernist architects, guilds of masons still teach this key building art. The Modernists also celebrated decorative exuberance in trencadís, the mosaics of broken tile that characterize much of Gaudí’s later work. Today artisans pass on the techniques to students who will help restore hundreds of Modernist buildings entering their second century.

    You’ll be able to see these themes come to life in Catalonia: Tradition and Creativity from the Mediterranean at the 2018 Folklife Festival, which runs from June 27 to July 1 and July 4 to 8. The event will feature hundreds of artisans, designers, musicians, and cooks from Catalonia, Armenia, and other locations to highlight the importance of cultural heritage enterprise in the face of change.

    Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or the Festival Blog to keep up with the development of this exciting program.

    Michael Mason is the co-curator for the Catalonia program and the director of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.


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