Smithsonian Folklife Festival shines spotlight on Haitian art and culture

Haitian artists to the Mall as an official centerpiece of the festival

Published on 23 June 2010

Author(s): Washington Post/Jacqueline Trescott

Type:  Event

The conservators went down with three suitcases of supplies. These are art and cultural humanitarians. They are caring, living under harsh conditions, Kurin said

When Richard Kurin heard about the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti last January, he was heartbroken. As point man for decades for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, he knew the Smithsonian had to do something.

In 2004 about 100 Haitian artists came to the Mall as an official centerpiece of the festival, marking Haiti's 200 years of independence from the French. So, Kurin said, "we knew the cultural workers." His immediate concern for the safety of individual artists morphed into worries about the condition of the nation's paintings, musical instruments and art galleries.

Once he started hearing from artists who had survived and he saw televised images of injured people pulling art from the rubble, Kurin developed a plan to get the Smithsonian involved in the recovery. "Culture is important as a basic part of people's survival. The Smithsonian had the context there and we had the tools," he said.

When the Folklife Festival opens Thursday, the Smithsonian will showcase one aspect of its Haiti initiative. It has expanded the core programs by inviting Boukman Eksperyans, a Grammy-nominated group, to perform its Haitian-Caribbean fusion sound Saturday.

Two Haitian visual artists, Mireille Delisme and Levoy Exil, will also participate in the festival. Delisme will show how she incorporates voodoo designs into sequined flags. Exil will discuss how the Saint Soleil school of painting emerged from a mountain community. In the tented festival marketplace, paintings, metalwork, baskets and statues representing the crafts of 77 Haitian artists will be sold, with all proceeds helping the island's artists and art cooperatives.

This year, at the 10-day, 44th annual Folklife Festival on the Mall, the focus will be on the cultures of Mexico and Asian Pacific Americans and on Smithsonian workers, such as the keepers of the fossils. The outdoor festival runs Thursday through Monday and then resumes July 1-5. Though most activities end at 5:30, the Smithsonian and the National Park Service sponsor evening concerts and dance parties. 


The festival's programs are selected by curators doing research on a topic or country, or on a particular anniversary. This allows the coordinators to dig deep into cultures and present a diversity of languages, music, food, dance and crafts.

This year, in the tented areas, the small businesses of Mexico, celebrating the nation's 200th year of independence, will be represented by a candymaker from Xochimilco, instrument makers from Nayarit and Veracruz, and beekeepers from Campeche. The Asian Pacific Americans section, representing the roughly 30 Asian American and 24 Pacific Island American groups, will emphasize traditional dances and songs, including fusion styles. A local women's performance group, the Veiyasana Dance Troupe, will feature Fijian and Indian dances and island songs.

In a second push to help Haiti, the Smithsonian is leading an international effort to preserve thousands of artworks that were rescued from collapsed structures. The Smithsonian has secured a 7,500-square-foot, three-story building, which formerly belonged to the U.N. Development Program, and is equipping it with generators, imported from Canada, and the supplies needed to repair broken frames, tears in canvases and water damage. Machines will also be used to rid the artworks of dust.

"The conservators went down with three suitcases of supplies. These are art and cultural humanitarians. They are caring, living under harsh conditions," Kurin said during an interview in his office in the Smithsonian Castle. "We are essentially setting up a base, like we do in Antarctica."

A folklorist and author, Kurin has been an official at the Smithsonian for 25 years and oversees the complex's art museums, among other divisions. Officially, he's the Smithsonian undersecretary for history, art and culture. Unofficially, he's a champion for world cultures. A tall man with salt-and-pepper hair, a mustache and beard, Kurin is a rapid, robust talker.
He said he was shocked when he got to Haiti in early March. "It was almost overwhelming. I went to the Catholic cathedral, which had these beautiful stained-glass windows, and I'm Jewish, and I just had to cry. The earthquake has taken the guts out of people," Kurin, 59, said. The Musée d'Art Nader in Port-au-Prince, which had 9,000 to 10,000 paintings, was flattened.

praying and sorrow.jpg

Kurin knew that Haiti's organizational resources were few, and that the infrastructure had collapsed, but he also understood that the local art community would tackle, and even survive, the most horrific hurdle. "The Haitian people have this resilience. It is not easy, but people have a lot of pride, and they have always had to look inward to get strength," Kurin said. "From the earliest time, [their] art expressed many feelings. It was a way of decoding nationhood and freedom."

Liberation from the French in 18o4 and scenes of everyday life have been themes of a bold, colorful and intricate art style that stretches back five centuries. Since the earthquake, artists have created works out of twisted metal. In addition to Haiti's presence on the Mall, nearly 100 works of art created by the children of Haiti after the quake are on display at the S. Dillon Ripley Center until Oct. 17, under the sponsorship of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.

Collaborating with the Smithsonian in the Haiti recovery project are the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Broadway League, UNESCO and the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, a non-governmental organization. The Broadway League has donated $276,000 for rent and other costs. The National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services have each donated $30,000.

The project is being coordinated with Haiti's Ministry of Culture and Communication and the country's reconstruction commission. That partnership is key, Kurin said, because the longer goals of the recovery program include training Haitians in conservation methods and museum skills.

The outreach, Kurin said, will show that Haiti has not been defeated, and "this is a lively, ongoing, living tradition."


Back to previous page