Metro Weekly

Smithsonian Folklife Festival is a mix of far-flung cultural traditions, modern art, and feminist musicians

Through displays, discussions, and performances, the festival showcases two diverse cultures

Folklife Festival — Photo: Francisco Guerra / Smithsonian Institution

“I’m surprised at how even the stories that are quote-unquote foreign stories…are still very American stories,” Sabrina Lynn Motley says. Take the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and its programmatic focus on the rich cultural traditions of Armenia, the post-Soviet state that can be seen as both foreign and faraway.

“The Armenian-American diaspora has responded so strongly and warmly to this program,” says Motley, the festival’s director. “The pride they feel — that the Smithsonian is presenting Armenia on the National Mall of the United States — is palpable. It reminds me [that these] are stories of your neighbors, your teachers, your co-workers. By learning about Armenia and Catalonia, it gives you a window into people that you encounter in your daily life.”

Through displays, discussions, and performances, the 51-year-old festival showcases those two diverse cultures — one from the mountainous South Caucasus region in Eurasia, the other a cosmopolitan area of Spain along the Mediterranean. In both cultures, “the traditional folk arts and crafts — [including] music, food, and dance, helps to create identity and social cohesion as well as support economic livelihood.”

New for 2018 is a Marketplace set up in front of the National Museum of American History, conceived as “less of a museum gift shop and more of an active artisan market.” It’s a place for workshops featuring everything from weaving to carving stone, along with food tastings, plus artisans selling their wares (which can’t be done on the Mall as federal property).

Folklife Festival — Photo: Caroline Angelo / Smithsonian-Institution

“Obviously we want people to come and buy their Christmas gifts and holiday or birthday presents and the like, [but] it’s meant for people to really interact with artists and artisans,” says Motley.

Things draw to a close with a series of performances celebrating the 40th anniversary of Roadwork, a D.C.-based multiracial, queer-inclusive coalition of feminist musicians including Holly Near, Martha Redbone, Urban Bush Women, Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Toshi Reagon with her band BIGLovely. This closing “Sisterfire” series also doubles as a preview of next year’s festival and its theme of the “Social Power of Music,” anchoring an institution-wide “Smithsonian Year of Music 2019.”

And Motley intends to make that approach — ending with programming that looks ahead — a new festival tradition. “The Olympic model is quite lovely, where you light a torch at the beginning and you pass along that torch at the end. That’s exactly what I’d like to do from here on out.”

The Folklife Festival runs through Sunday, July 1, and Wednesday, July 4, through Sunday, July 8, from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the National Mall between 12th and 14th Streets NW. Call 202-706-3809 or visit

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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