Phillip Ryan Lee/ Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
Since starting this blog in 2014, we’ve covered the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It’s a two-week event in Washington, DC that brings together artists and artisans from around the world to share their crafts, their songs, their food.
We interviewed an Armenian calligrapher and a leather craftsman from Niger and witnessed a Peruvian alpaca blessing. We even tasted goat stew offered by a Kenyan chef from a restaurant in Washington, DC
Then came the pandemic. The festival was on hiatus for a few years, but this year has returned – and so have we.
From our global perspective, we were more interested in talking to artisans from the Global South – countries that may lack the resources of Western nations but are incredibly resourceful when it comes to creating objects of beauty at from the most ordinary elements. It would be: yak hair, tree bark and simple beads.
Why It’s Hard To Collect Maasai Beads – Literally
Madeleine Callanan for NPR
In a tent there is an intricate collar so large that it covers the shoulders and chest – and it’s not just decorative. This is a gift for engaged women. Family and friends tie knots in the strands at the bottom of the necklace, which serve as a kind of ledger. The nodes indicate the amount of cattle, for example, that they will give to the couple as a gift for the wedding.
The colors are bold and symbolic, says Simaloi Saitoti, a Maasai woman who leads beadwork projects for Maa Trust, a nonprofit group in Kenya that preserves nomadic Maasai culture and wildlife. “Green represents the earth. When it rains, the earth turns green, so we are happy as pastors because we raise cows. White represents peace, blue represents energy, black represents people and red is a symbol of the food we eat.”
It is mainly women who make the beaded jewelry and baskets that have been part of the Maasai culture since hundreds of years, says Saitoti. “Beadwork is something you learn from your parents, passed down from generation to generation,” says Saitoti. “It defines who I am as a Maasai.”
Saitoti says Maa Trust helps Maasai women earn money by selling their beaded jewelry on their behalf. The group, she adds, supports nearly 500 women through the program, which also teaches them how to save and spend wisely.
At the festival, visitors try their hand at making their own jewelry, but it’s not an easy job. Thousands of pearls are spread on a table. They are too small to be grasped with the fingers; Maasai beaders show how to pick them up one by one on a stiff wire, then string the beads on a fishing line which will serve as a bracelet. It’s an exercise in patience – and one that makes the dozens of elaborate pieces on display all the more impressive.
Horses and sheep shed their hair to make traditional Mongolian felt
Madeleine Callanan for NPR
In another tent, a large abstract tapestry in shades of grey, cream, brown and black hangs from the ceiling. It is made from fibers from different animals in Mongolia, including sheep, horses, camels, and yaks.
This fiber art was created by Mongolian artists Enkhbold Togmidshiirev and his wife, Munguntsetseg Lkhagvasuren. The tapestry was the couple’s first collaborative work of art. “It’s special because we used natural materials [from the land] related to the nomadic Mongolian way of life,” says Lkhagvasuren.
For thousands of years, Mongolian nomads have turned animal hair and wool into felt. The fabric is sewn into clothing for the winter and is used to make yurts for housing – practices that continue to this day.
At a table near their marquee, the couple show a festival-goer how to make felt. First, you need to clean the pet hair with hot water, then pound it with small stones to separate the fibers. Soak the fibers again in water to bind them together. Then tangle them, roll that tangle and press it by hand to make a fabric, which is left to air dry.
Felt is an important material in the couple’s work. Togmidshiirev often uses organic materials such as felt, ash, leather and wood in his contemporary and performance art pieces. And Lkhagvasuren, a fashion designer, makes felt clothes and boots.
The couple hope that by continuing to make art with felt, people will appreciate the ancient practice. “We believe we can preserve this cultural tradition for many more years,” says Togmidshiirev.
tree bark fabric painting
Madeleine Callanan for NPR
Fred Mutebi proudly holds up a painting he made of a Ugandan woman wearing a zebra print headgear and matching dress under her tent at the festival.
What is remarkable about this portrait, he says, is that he did it on barkcloth, a canvas-like fabric that dates back to the kingdom of Baganda in southern Uganda. 800 years ago. Mutebi uses barkcloth in his art as a way to keep the tradition alive.
For centuries Ugandans have used the bark to make clothing, bedding and even curtains and mosquito nets. At the festival, Aloyzius Luwemba, a 10th generation barkcloth maker, demonstrates how the cloth is made. First, artisans harvest bark from the Mutuba tree, a species of ficus. They boil it until soft, then beat the bark into cloth using special wooden mallets so that it stretches and expands. Although made from tree bark, the fabric is surprisingly soft and supple enough to be pieced into dresses and tunics – and a good canvas for painting too.
Barkcloth is such a crucial part of Ugandan culture that in 2008 UNESCO declared it a “masterpiece of oral and intangible cultural heritage”. The title encourages communities to protect and support works of significant cultural expression. It joins Congolese rumba, falconry, Inuit drum dancing and singing, among hundreds of other traditions.
Xueying Chang/ Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution
But Mutebi, a former Fulbright scholar who has exhibited his paintings and woodcuts in galleries across Europe, the United States and Africa – says traditional Ugandan craftsmanship is disappearing. When Arab traders introduced cotton to the country in the 19th century, it largely replaced barkcloth as the material used for clothing and other goods. Today, artisans continue to make barkcloth, but it is often reserved for traditional costumes worn for special events like healing ceremonies or the coronations of Ugandan tribal chiefs.
Mutebi wants Ugandans to do more to preserve barkcloth craftsmanship. “I’m trying to mobilize a group of artists to collaborate with businessmen and politicians,” to create a sustainable industry for barkcloth makers, he says. In the meantime, he will continue to use barkcloth as the canvas of choice for his art.