When visitors start arriving at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this week, Sabrina Lynn Motley will be behind the scenes, zipping around to help with last-minute details for the event, which is showcasing traditional art, craft, food and music from China and Kenya.
As festival director, Motley oversees the curators and production and technical staff who help bring the festival to life, but for the next few days and weeks, she will be a utility player handling a range of activities from welcoming dignitaries to helping artists get from their hotels to the stage.
For many of the artists, whom Motley calls “the heart and soul of the festival,” this is the first time out of their home countries, and Motley has been working to help get their passports and visas processed.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which produces the annual outdoor festival on the National Mall, has a mission is to “provide a platform for tradition-based artists and crafts people to share their work with the public,” said Motley, who is associate director of the center as well as festival director.
The programs and demonstrations remind people that important traditions live on and they matter, and that in some ways, “the break between modern and traditional is quite false,” she said.
“It’s easy to wring our hands and say how much we’re losing, but there’s so much we’re retaining,” she said. Many traditions are “strong and vibrant and relevant. I want people to take that away, to have these moments of discovery.”
The stories that mean the most to Motley are those that cross generations—for example, the three generations of female Chinese paper cutters whose skills turn their chosen medium into various fanciful figures.
Many of the men who will build and install a flower plaque—a decorative bamboo structure designed by artist Danny Yung—come from a long line of male Chinese bamboo workers. The flower plaque will be one of the largest structures in the festival’s history at 34 feet high and 112 feet wide.
The festival also commissioned a 20-ton sculpture that Kenyan artist Elkana Ong’esa will finish on-site, spotlighting Kenya’s “hands off our elephants” conservation campaign, which is trying to bring attention to the problem of poaching.
Although this year’s festival has two themes, that number is not set in stone. Some years there are three and other years one. When researching ideas and themes for festivals, the center looks for state, local and international partners who have a deep understanding of and support for traditional artists, and also have strong cultural institutions, Motley said.
It might be a ministry of culture or a state folklorist, but it’s important for those institutions to be in place, she said. Then the discussions begin. “It’s a series of conversations and negotiations,” she said. “Usually we’re able to open the net wide. There’s no sort of application you fill out.”
As soon as this festival is over, Motley, who has been with the Smithsonian for six months, will return to the research-intensive process of planning and preparing for festivals several years away, including the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2016.
She’ll oversee the curators who work with host countries or state curators to fashion a narrative for the public and figure out which artists to invite.
As a little girl, Motley loved museums while shunning circuses and parades. “They were truly places of wonder and discovery,” she said. “I didn’t know I would work with museums, but I knew I would work with cultures.”
She trained in anthropology and before arriving at the Smithsonian worked at several organizations that help educate people on arts, cultures and traditions, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where she was the curator for an annual concert series featuring world music.
“She has an incredibly deep knowledge of a wide breadth of music traditions from all sorts of cultures, even within Americana,” said Laurel Kishi, Getty’s performing arts manager.
“Sabrina has the ability to connect despite the language barrier—even if it’s basic communication—with artists of all ages, levels and skills in a deep and respectful way,” Kishi said. “The energy and ability to do that is rare and it will serve her well in the work she’s doing now.”
It doesn’t mean it’s easy. Negotiating across cultures can be challenging, Motley said. “It takes patience and respect and nerves of steel.” But the work is worth it, she added, particularly being able to be involved with a festival that is a “remarkable model” and one that has influenced festivals around the world.
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