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Communities of Creativity

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
This year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature thousands of participants and hundreds of exhibits during its 10-day run. The festival, which was first held in 1967, will be divided into three programs that explore the creativity of communities.

Be advised: With thousands of participants and hundreds of exhibits covering the National Mall, a single person will not be able to see everything at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during its 10-day run that starts Wednesday. 

But feel free to give it a try.

This year, the festival — first held in 1967 — will be divided into three programs that explore the creativity of communities, whether they are united by geography, ancestry, education or even grief. 

“Unlike an exhibit that displays artifacts behind glass, this is a dialogue between the visitor and participants,” Smithsonian spokeswoman Emily Grebenstein said. “It’s tactile and audible and makes for a very individual and unique learning experience.” 

Land and Learning

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the founding of both the land-grant university system and the Department of Agriculture. 

The festival will explore the collaboration of these two institutions from historical and modern perspectives. “Campus and Community” features more than 20 universities and highlights their approaches to sustainability. Featured universities have built eco-cars (Mississippi State University), robots (Oregon State University) and disease-resistant crops (Washington State University). 

Betty Belanus, Smithsonian curator for the exhibit, said the program features the ways in which universities are working with communities to reinvent older agricultural methods.

For those concerned that a focus on education will be dry, Belanus promises the events will be “anything but boring.” A series of musical performances will include Hawaiian hula dancing, a steel drum ensemble from West Virginia and an award-winning mariachi group. 

Across the Anacostia

Curator Olivia Cadaval joked that the country being featured this year is “the country of Washington east of the river.” 

“Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River” celebrates the community identity of far Southeast D.C. In addition to highlighting the traditions of these D.C. neighborhoods, the program confronts issues prevalent among Anacostia communities, such as the large numbers of young people joining gangs. This program looks toward “redirecting their energy in more creative ways,” Cadaval said. 

Among the local talent participating is Charles “Coco” Bayron, a tattoo artist from Anacostia. “There’s different forms of artwork,” he said. “This is ours.”

“Some people are afraid of going east of the river,” Cadaval said. “It’s very rich in public art. Another goal is to have a conversation with the public that will expand beyond coming to the Mall.” 

“Citified” will also host a poetry slam on July 6 and a tribute to the Godfather of Go-Go, the late Chuck Brown, on July 7.  

Memorial on the Mall

It was about 30 years ago that doctors in the United States diagnosed the first case of AIDS. Within five years, a collective in San Francisco gathered to mourn those it had lost to the disease. 

From this collective, the NAMES Project Foundation was born. The project began as a series of quilt panels, usually devoted to the memory of an individual who had died. Since then, the quilt has become an icon of AIDS education and advocacy.

The festival program “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt” will teach visitors about the history of the quilt and allow them to sew their own contributions.

Julie Rhoad, president and CEO of the NAMES Project Foundation, said it has been her goal for a decade to bring the quilt to the Folklife Festival. She believes it represents “how art has been a tool for healing, for activism and for economic empowerment in some parts of the world.” 

This year marks the first year the AIDS Memorial Quilt will be displayed in its entirety since 1996, when it covered the National Mall. Instead of all 48,000 panels being displayed at once, sections will be displayed over 40 days in more than 60 venues across D.C. The display of the quilt will culminate in the 19th International AIDS Conference beginning July 22.

“It’s difficult to manage people’s expectations,” Rhoad said of the quilt display. “So much is based on the iconic ’96 image. This is unlike any of our previous trips to D.C.”

For Rhoad, displaying the quilt in D.C. has special significance.

“We’re on the civic stage,” she said. “The quilt is the most democratic of memorials ... made by the people, for the people they love.” 

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