On today’s episode of the Craft Industry Alliance podcast, we’re talking about folklore with my guest Diana Baird N’Diaye.

Diana is a senior curator and cultural heritage specialist at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She previously held positions as folk arts program analyst at the New York State Council on the Arts and curator-in-chief at the Muse Community Museum of Brooklyn, New York.

Dr. N’Diaye is also a maker, creating quilts, necklaces, clothing, bags, and everything in between. As a maker, her focus is to provoke conversations and contemplations around identity, heritage, healing, and the social terrain in those of the diaspora. Utilizing her creativity as an anthropologist, Diana’s travel and research permeate through her work. Her art is shaped by her identities as a citizen of global Africa and 2nd generation transnational.

This episode is sponsored by Craftsy.

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In this interview, Diana begins by describing her early upbringing in the Caribbean and, in her high school years, in New York where her mother owned a dry cleaner. She was creative throughout her childhood and learned to sew as a child, and later mending and selling her handmade items in her mother’s shop.

Diana is an anthropologist and folklorist. She defines the term “folk art” as the expressive culture of a community. It’s artwork that is made in the context of community and that community gives it meaning. We talk about why people are sometimes hesitant to apply that term to the work that they’re making. Diana explains that academically trained artists who were Black would have that term ascribed to their work because of their race. People would get mischaracterized as folk artists or makers of “primitive art” who had an African aesthetic. Diana also explains the problems she sees with the term “outsider art.”

Diana explains how she and her husband, who is from Senegal, got an opportunity to work at the Smithsonian to curate an exhibit about Senegal. They brought 75 traditional artists from Senegal to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that year, which Diana describes as “creating a community of practice” on the National Mall. The goal of the festival is to have the people who made the things in the Smithsonian museums come and bring the objects to life with music, performance, and art. The experience was incredible and Diana has been curating the festival for 33 years now!

 At the 2022 Folklife Festival, Emirati artisan Umm Saeed and Fijian artisan Titi Lati learned different weaving techniques from each other. On a shared mat, they told stories, sang songs, and reflected on the unique role women play in preserving and promoting traditional weaving practices.

We talk about the word “curate” and what it actually means since it has now become a buzzword. She explains the idea of community curation and participatory curation in which communities curate their own objects and tell their own story in their own words. “No folklore without the folk” and “nothing about us without us” are two sayings that sum up these ideas. She talks about bigger topics, like worship, which is something people practice throughout the world, and bringing cultures together through ideas like “makers of faith”  which will be part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival this summer along with a program about the Ozarks with a goal of dispelling stereotypes about mountain people in America.

Diana talks about the African American Craft Initiative, a program that was started during the pandemic and that Craft Industry Alliance had the honor of participating in. The newsletter of the African American Craft Initiative is excellent and we highly recommend subscribing!

We also talk about The Will to Adorn which celebrates African American styles of dress and how those styles reflect community, freedom, and resistance. The exhibit looks at African American diversity through the voices of individuals in different communities. Diana is working on a book on this topic to be released next year.

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