A Delicate Beauty from Phetburi: Tales of Intrigue in Asia, Africa and Other Exotic Places

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This was not true at the Smithsonian in the s. The Festival fol- lowed in the wake of Rev. Martin Luther King's use of the National Mall as a pulpit to assert civic participa- tion. The Festival signaled to members of Congress that there was culture back home, and that that culture was worthy of national pride and atten- tion. In relation to the museums, the Festival, for Ripley, was a means of livening up the Smithsonian, broadening and enlarging its visitorship. The Festival has always navigated between the various axes of art as entertainment , cultural rights as advocacy , education as public service , and knowledge as scholarship and experience.

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It was originally intended to broaden knowledge, appreciation, and support of art forms and practi- tioners often overlooked in a society whose sense of beauty and value is generally driven by the market- place. At times during its history, and even within the same year among its programs, presentations and framing have gravitated toward one or another axis. But by and large, the Festival's form, contexts, purposes, and place have remained the same.

The Festival As a Festival In general, festivals provide a time out of time. They separate off the heightened and the accentu- ated from the mundane, the usual, daily routine.

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Festivals are liminal moments, temporary pauses or transitions in the flow of events and activities, in which new relationships can be made, old ones reinforced or inverted. Festivals may indeed rein- vest the social order with legitimacy - connecting that order to higher powers, cosmic purposes, and sacred history.

But festivals may also provide a The Festival offers interesting, even arresting juxtapositions oj eiiltural nje. Here a demonstration of cow- herding skills by Oklahoman Sherri Lyn Close is set against the backdrop oj the Capitol. Photo by Dane Penland, courtesy Smithsonian Institution release valve, so to speak, giving members of society a chance to revolt against the usual order, counter the struc- ture of relationships with either inverted ones or none at all.

Floaters and flashes in the eyes

In the Washingtonian scheme of things, the Festival of American Folklife does operate like a festival. It creates its own space on the Mall, a sometimes jarring presence in the midst of official, neat space. It creates a kind of face-to-face type of community in the shadows of inanimate official buildings and the institutions of state. The Festival is messy, it leaks at porous boundaries of participation, time, and event.

The Festival does compress time and space. It creates an experience and event which are intense, but short- lived, in which representations are magnified, pushed together, and then, just as quickly, dis- persed. And it brings people together - tradition bearers, the public, scholars, officials, administra- tors, builders, designers, volunteers, etc. Washington loves a good show, and though the town feeds on politics and breeds bureaucracy, what it really likes is drama.

Most festive of all is what happens amongst peo- ple who gather to talk, listen, sing, dance, craft, cook, eat, and watch. Unlike the rules and regula- tions and authoritative voices that come from the buildings, Festival voices are more intimate, a bit more human and inspirited.

The lack of direct per- sonal contact so expected in official Washington is contrasted with the folksiness, perceived or real, at the Festival. We can hear from and talk with people whom we might not ordinarily meet. Indeed, the social space of the Mall and Festival is endowed with a certain power; they are, as Anacostia Museum director Steve Newsome says, "sanctified. Photo by Mary Maclnnis, courtesy Smithsonian Institution everyone's and no one's at the same time, enables people to cross boundaries they usually wouldn't cross.

And when people speak on the Mall at the Festival, they often feel they are doing so with a power they do not ordinarily possess.

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I think people listen in somewhat the same way. This makes it hard, if not impos- sible, for anyone to impose a single, overriding, monological voice upon the Festival. And if control over the Festival comes from us, the organiz- ers, more often than not it is over- taken by the contingents of partici- pants and the contingencies of their participation. We know this, which is why we have to fight both within and outside our own bureaucracies so hard, lest the desire for con- trol be so burdensome as to squeeze out the spirit of the people. To some extent, and for its limited time every year, the Festival subverts the normal order of cul- tural power along the Mall, and is thus also a Smithsonian festival of sorts.

A Smithsonian "info- mercial" in Business Week April 4, refers to the Festival as the time when "the normally stately institution ihe Smithsonian] lets its hair down.

And how the traditionalists of the museum were driven to the foul crime of mur- der to prevent this great catastrophe. Large banners and pre- sentations of African-based expressive traditions by scores of groups from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States helped convey an idea of the African Diaspora in the s.

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Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution physically outside, but also repre- sents the outside, associated with the common people, the playful, and the open ended. Given the great popularity of the Festival, attendance by dignitaries, attention by the press, and use of the Mall, the normal power relationship shifts - the outsiders are in - if only for the duration of the Festival.

While the Festival may, in some literal way, recall 19th-century forms of cultural exhibitionism and voyeurism, it has bene- fited from decades of cultural research and discus- sions about representation to become quite differ- ent than that. Shifts in authoritative voice, collabo- ration in self-representation, treatment of contem- porary contexts, as well as the forms of discourse have significantly changed thanks in large part to the efforts of people like Ralph Rinzler, Bess Lomax Hawes, Bernice Reagon, and a generation of folk- lorists who have worked at the intersection of scholarship, cultural community advocacy, and public education.

Large-scale cultural displays are situated in a public world in which various parties have a stake. Politicians, advocacy groups, rebels, and scholars may use these forms to forward their own agendas, and have become very sophisticated in doing so. As a representational genre, living cultural exhi- bitions like the Festival share features with the zoo, the local fair, a town meeting, object-based muse- um exhibit, ethnographic monograph, talk show, and documentary film.

The Festival is a low-resolu- tion medium, as Bob Byington, the Festivals former deputy director, always said.


The profusion of tree samples, cotton, sisal, coffee, cocoa, coconut, copra, tamarind, vanilla, and other specimens at the German East African display in Saint Louis elevated this idea to a new level. Sinkholes are common where the rock below the land surface is limestone or other carbonate rock , salt beds , or rocks that can naturally be dissolved by circulating ground water. Also on the Mall, yet half a world away, is Thailand, a nation that never acceded to colonial rule and whose ancient traditions are very much alive in contempo- rary households, temples, and the royal court. The open area under the raised main structure is also used for storing farming tools and fishing instruments. Click here to find out more. Tarangire Culture article A Maasai-like pastoral people, the Barabaig, also known as the Datooga, places nature in high regard, as palpable in their myths and songs And while many of them recorded music, not all of them released it.

The Festival differs from a book, film, exhibit, and concert in that it lacks lineality. While the Festival has highlighted special events, a daily schedule, and structured forms of presentation, many things happen simulta- neously. Not everyone experiences the same thing. And levels of mediation in communication vary considerably.

Simply, the Festival offers the abihty, indeed the desirability for people - visitors, staff, participants - to chart their own experiential routes though it. The density of the crowd, the symbolic weight of the location, the significance of the time around the Fourth of July help make this experi- ence important.

Most distinctively, the Festival offers the immediacy and sentient presence of peo- ple possessed of knowledge, skill, and wisdom, who can and do speak for themselves. At the Festival, many different people speak in a variety of voices and styles.

follow url For the most part, the authority to speak and the content of that speech are diffuse. One anthropologist who helped present a Maroon program on the Mall a few years ago turned to me at one session where Maroon leaders from Jamaica, Suriname, French Guiana, Colombia, Texas, and Ecuador were meeting with each other for the first time in the almost year history of marronage - and asked rhetorically, "What have they got to say to each other?

People who don't usually have the opportunity can use these occasions to talk to a public directly and say their piece. They can cooperate with as well as challenge the ethnographers who claim to and so often do represent them. They can engage their exhibitors m dialogue and confrontation. At the same time, 1 think we as practitioners of our own art gain experience and appreciation in both understanding and conveying representational processes.

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As a genre, cultural displays like the Festival can disrupt the complacent, linear flow of history. The representational act or event can highlight salient issues and challenge public notions of the given state of social life. Almost like a collage, the Festival is a display of recontextualized cultural imagery.

In offering bits, pieces, and slices of life, the Festival allows visitors a way into someone else's life as they are willing to publicly represent it. Such displays are usually risky. The actions of participants - those conspiring in their own repre- sentation - is somewhat unpredictable. Who knows what the musician from Jerusalem or the Hawaiian nationalist will say when they have the microphone and pulpit in front of a few hundred thousand peo- ple on the Mall?

Yet with risk comes the playful ainbiguity of the genre, the way in which cultural styles are brought to the organization and experi- ence of the event itself. The genre shares the inter- stitial social character one now hnds increasingly in borderland regions and other cultural crossroads. New forms and syntheses of cultural expression may emerge at and be invented through the event itself. Politically, cultural displays can be used to say new things, foster new understandings, promote old ones, valorize and legitimate stances by govern- ments, peoples, or communities.

The very presence of largely working-class folks and people from a variety of backgrounds who are not usually repre- sented on a national or international stage is signifi- cant. The institutional investment in their presence and voice helps legitimate their right to speak, and sometimes what they have to say, and how they say it.