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Exploring China and Kenya at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

It’s not every day that you can walk from Kenya to China, but that’s what I did this Saturday.  Every summer for two weeks, the National Mall is DC is transformed into a center for global culture when it hosts the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.  Over 100 artisans, musicians, performers, and chefs take up residence and share their national traditions with Washington DC.  The rich cultures of Kenya and China were presented this year and I had a wonderful time exploring the festivities!

Folklife Chinese gate

The Flower Plaque gate made of bamboo, paper, and plastic welcomes visitors into the Chinese section of the Festival.

Festival Structure

The festival park is broadly separated into two national sections each with their own decorations.  For example, the Kenyan grounds feature a couple traditional Pokomo shelters.  There are also numerous tents for traditional craft demonstrations.  The respective food concession areas feature specialties such as grilled goat with ugali (cornmeal mash), fried lentils, and chicken curry for Kenya, and tofu, lo mein, pork dumplings and a coconut mango desert for China.

Pokomo Hut made from branches and grasses.

Small traditional Pokomo Hut made from branches and grasses imported from Kenya.

At the “People’s Park” in the Chinese section, you can play games like badminton and watch martial arts and dance performances throughout the day.  On the Kenyan side, it is hard to miss the ostrich feather headdresses of the roving Ramogi Dancers would spontaneous break into dance as you can see below.

Ramogi Dancers from Homa Bay County

Ramogi Dancers from Homa Bay County, Kenya


The Folklife Festival has several performance stages for musical and theater groups.  I made sure to see the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe from the Zhejiang Province just south of Shanghai.  Enhanced by dramatic make-up and costumes, the choreography was stylized and very precise.  In this skit below, a warrior hunts a thief at night leading to some comical near misses as he moved stealthily from grand pose to pose.

Comedic skit from the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe

Comedic skit from the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe

In another routine, a dancer used a long scarf to create artistic shapes that floated around her.

scarf dancer Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe

Dancer from the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe

As great as the Opera was, I just adored the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe!  Expressive and playful, the puppets could pick up objects, performed acrobatics, and definitely charmed the audience.

Warrior puppet, Quanzhou Puppet Troupe

Elaborate warlord figure from the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe

Founded in 1932 in the Fujian Province, this group is keeping alive a nearly thousand year tradition of marionette performance in China.

lion and warrior Chinese puppet battle

Children eagerly watch a warrior fight a lion from the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe.

After the show, the puppet troupe appeared at the Children’s area to give visitors a closer look at the characters.

Quanzhou Puppet Troupe

The Director of the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe demonstrates the articulation of this Monk puppet.

Up close, I could appreciate the elaborate control system for each figure.  There were 20 or so strings for each human puppet!  The puppeteers were incredible and quickly “disappeared” once the performance began.

Boy with a ball teases a lion puppet

A boy with a ball teases a lion puppet.

These hand-made puppets were crafted with amazing attention to detail.  Much like humans who wear lion costumes for dance performances, the lion puppet had a little person inside.

Chinese lion and figure puppet

The lion puppets are built over figures.

Arts and Crafts

I have always enjoyed exploring the craft areas at the Folklife Festival.  It is a wonderful opportunity to interact with the artisans themselves and learn about the traditional arts and techniques that they are keeping alive.  In the Kenyan area, I really liked the plaster wall sculptor.  His decorative domestic elements add a flash of creativity to otherwise utilitarian buildings.

Kenya plaster relief decorations

Master mason Ahmed Yusuf Suleiman demonstrates the art of plaster carving.

There are also several participants who used recycled materials like old flip-flops, glass bottles, or aluminum to create pieces of art.  I also met a basket weaver who used water hyacinth rope for his pieces.  Water hyacinth is actually an invasive, non-native plant that has started to choke Lake Victoria, so by removing the plant and using it as an artistic material, he has found a positive solution for a local problem.

water hyacinth rope weaving

This weaver uses wild water hyacinth rope from Lake Victoria to create baskets.

Creating a hand-build pot

Creating a traditional hand-build pot.

The Chinese artists at the Festival practiced a variety of decorative arts including embroidery, calligraphy, and sculpting.  Whether it was kite decoration, creating dough figures, or paper cutting, there was a overarching attention to detail and an emphasis on technique and beauty.

small Chinese butterfly kites

Bamboo frames for cloth kites.

Chinese sculptor

Sculptor working on a porcelain figure.

Luckily the Folklife Festival continues until July 6, 2014 because there are a lot more musical groups and cooking demonstrations for me to see!  If you are in DC for the 4th of July holiday, be sure to visit this cultural festival and celebration of art and folk tradition in Kenya and China!


You can also learn about my “visit” to Hungary as part of the 2013 Folklife Festival.

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