All That We Do: Contemporary Women, Traditional Arts.
This 2007 documentary photography exhibition was in the Folklore Project gallery through Spring 2008 and is now available for traveling. A 20th birthday effort of the Folklore Project, it profiles nine women working in the folk and traditional arts in the Philadelphia area. View Slideshow
The women pictured on these walls choose, against all odds, to learn, practice and teach cultural heritage - folk and traditional arts - in the 21st century. Here are nine exceptional artists, caught in moments that hint at the complexity of their lives and arts: Antonia Arias, Fatu Gayflor, Vera Nakonechny, Ayesha Rahim, Anna Rubio, Yvette Smalls, Michele Tayoun, Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts. Art forms represented include flamenco, Liberian song, Ukrainian needlework, African American crochet/crown-making and hair sculpture, Middle Eastern dance and song, and Jewish klezmer music, a small sampling of the vital contemporary practice of traditional arts in Philadelphia today.
Some of the women pictured were featured in recent Folklore Project concerts, salons or exhibitions; others will be featured in concerts this coming year. This exhibition takes viewers behind the scenes, suggesting some of the ongoing work behind polished performances and exquisite craft, reminding us of the depth and breadth of relationships in which these women work. Here are artists honoring responsibility to family and broader communities (and to cultural practices and their lineages), all while enmeshed in the fast-paced global shifts that impact us all. And all while producing exquisite and important art.
In her own way, each of the featured artists is groundbreaking: juggling a push at conventions (artistic and social) while respecting canons, or balancing a life-long dedication to learning a cultural practice while isolated from other such practitioners, or insisting on constructive, positive self-imagery in the face of racism and inequity.
Nine women, out of hundreds of artists with whom the Folklore Project has worked over two decades: this 20th anniversary exhibition reflects ongoing and shared commitments to widening public knowledge about what counts as culture, to grappling with the continuing significance of heritage in a fractured world, and to creating (somehow, and together) systems and structures supporting meaningful cultural diversity.
Curated by Toni Shapiro-Phim and Debora Kodish, with Antonia Arias, Fatu Gayflor, Vera Nakonechny, Ayesha Rahim, Anna Rubio, Yvette Smalls, Michele Tayoun, Elaine Hoffman Watts and Susan Watts. Installed by Kim Tieger.
This project is funded by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, The National Endowment for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts, and PFP members.
About the photographer: James Wasserman began his photographic career covering the life of the city, shooting for a Philadelphia weekly. Over the 20 years since then he has worked regionally, nationally and internationally. His photographs have appeared in Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Le Nouvel Observateur and other publications. He has had one-man exhibitions at the Painted Bride Art Center, Old City Coffee, and Nexus Gallery. He has recently relocated to China, where he is exploring the impact of the changing landscape on peoples' lives.
Come into their homes! Like the arts in which they excel, these are women with many places they consider home. With roots in Liberia, Lebanon, Spain, Ukraine and elsewhere, they create and perform on many more stages than an outside public can know, or than a conventional biography might reveal. Their balancing acts, whether improvised or well-planned, reflect responsibility to family, community, heritage, artistic traditions, social justice, and more.
01. Yvette Smalls does hair: she is a master braider and a hair sculptor, revealing the beauty within her clients. Here she welcomes the photographer, and us, to her home in West Philadelphia, 2007.
02. Saturday morning breakfast for Liberian singer Fatu Gayflor and family (husband Timothy Karblee and daughter Fayola Thelma Karblee) at home in Sicklerville, New Jersey, 2007. Because of work schedules, the family can enjoy a morning meal together only once or twice a week.
03. Anna Rubio (center) and fellow flamenco dancer Gigi Quintana stretch before a rehearsal in the Rubios' South Philadelphia rowhouse. Anna's son David is on the left, 2006.
04. Ukrainian needlework artist Vera Nakonechny, wearing a traditional embroidered shirt, lights candles for Easter dinner with her family, at home in Northeast Philadelphia, 2007.
05. Yvette Smalls in her home, doing Patricia Green's hair, with Karima Wadud-Green (right) socializing while waiting her turn, 2007. Her studio is itself a work of art, filled with culturally and personally significant objects. The copper plate on the wall, a girl braiding hair, from Tanzania, is Yvette's favorite image. She bought it at an African Liberation Day festival in Washington, D.C.
"Patricia comes up from Maryland so that I can do her hair. I give her a choice of hair oils, all of which I've mixed myself. We take a tea and zucchini bread break (or whatever else I've made), and when she's back in the chair, someone else comes in. My sanctuary is my studio, and a gathering place." - Yvette Smalls
Minority traditions - discrete and particular forms of artistic and cultural expression - continue to have meaning because people make a commitment to them, within families, over generations and also across boundaries and borders. Anna, Vera, Fatu, Susan and Elaine are actively teaching technique and larger meanings about these arts, whether they are in performance, in an intimate setting with one cherished student, or in a classroom. As well, they model lessons about the rewards and values of lives devoted to preserving and re-imagining a heritage.
06. Anna Rubio with student Samantha Hogsten during a lesson in Anna's basement studio, 2007.
"My friend [flamenco dancer] Fibi got these shoes from Spain for my wonderful student, Samantha. In this picture, I'm explaining the features of professional flamenco shoes. I call Samantha 'La Joyita' because of her amazing smile, and because she's a gem, a jewel." - Anna Rubio. "I don't have the words to describe what Anna has meant to me. She's my teacher, but also a role model, and, in some ways, a mother." - Samantha Hogsten
07. Vera Nakonechny examining details of traditional Ukrainian patterns with her student, Melania Tkach, 2007. In a context far from Ukraine, Vera figures out how to explain the meanings and designs to someone who may continue to practice and pass on the tradition.
08. Fatu Gayflor teaching Liberian song and dance to a sixth grade class at the Folk Arts - Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia's Chinatown, 2007. Young people previously unfamiliar with Liberian arts have their world expanded through this exposure to songs, dances, and stories shared by their guest teacher.
09. Fatu Gayflor, with J. Blamoh Doe on drums, 2007. Fatu and Blamoh worked together in Liberia. Coming from an ensemble tradition, and now somewhat isolated from a pool of Liberian artists with their skills, Fatu, Blamoh and local peers have had to adapt to smaller-group community and concert performances.
"I really like the expression in this picture. I'm telling the audience that I am giving everything through my song. I can't be distracted; my message and my art will come out loud and clear. There's always so much to think about, to worry about: relatives in Africa, work schedule, my young daughter at home. I'm just doing my own thing in this picture. That's the only way to take control from the stage." - Fatu Gayflor
10. Klezmer musician Susan Watts (center) with sister Eileen Siegel and father Ernie Watts, at a family Hanukah celebration, Eileen's basement, Havertown. 2006. Other generations of this musical dynasty aren't pictured, including Eileen's son, Bradley, who takes drum lessons from his grandmother Elaine.
"Family Portrait, With Chair: I love the diagonal connecting my dad to two of his daughters - me, the youngest, and Eileen, the oldest. We've continued in the family business: klezmer." - Susan Watts
11. Susan Watts teaching at KlezKamp, an annual gathering of Yiddish arts and culture enthusiasts from all over North America, upstate New York, 2006.
12. Klezmer drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts teaching Curran Browning at Rosemont School of the Holy Child, 2006.
"This is a great picture. I'm showing Curran how to use his hand and wrist, not his arm. I'm teaching the kid. That's the whole point, passing on the art." - Elaine Hoffman Watts
What do we see and hear in public performance of folk arts? So much is likely outside the immediate experience of the onlooker. Yet, what we don't notice has been part of the artists' vision as they work toward a concert, festival, or ritual event. The intensity of performance carries within it the passion of rehearsal, long histories of knowledge of a particular piece or rhythm, and the devotion to pulling together all the elements that go into the spectacle the audience will take in. Color, shape, sound, and movement coalesce at a certain moment, in a certain place, after extensive time and effort beforehand, creating beauty, magic, and meanings. And paths for a next step...
13. Anna Rubio sewing costumes in her basement. She sews flamenco dresses as well as costumes for the Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble and other dance troupes, 2006.
14. Anna Rubio, flamenco singer Antonia Arias, Tito Rubio (guitar) in concert at Amada Restaurant in Old City, Philadelphia, where they regularly work, 2006.
15. Middle Eastern dancer and singer Michele Tayoun (left) rehearsing with the Herencia Arabe Project, which combines Arabic music and dance with flamenco, St. Maron's Hall, Philadelphia, 2005.
16. Anna Rubio (dancing), and (from left), Samantha Hogsten, Joseph Tayoun, Antonia Arias and Tito Rubio in concert at Amada Restaurant in Old City, Philadelphia, 2006.
The myriad aspects of behind-the-scenes art-making are often unknown, or invisible, once a hair sculpture, crocheted hat, embroidered shirt, or musical piece is presented to the world. Lock-by-lock, stitch-by-stitch, note-by-note, and then over again (sometimes starting completely over again): the process is part of the artistry. Also often unknown or hidden are the histories of these particular arts, and the women who practice them.
17. Yvette Smalls doing the hair of Estan Wilsonus El in her sanctuary at home, 2007. Through her hair sculpture and her documentary film, "Hair Stories," Yvette actively opposes racism and negative self-image: "Some of the techniques I employ are over 10,000 years old. . . I weave tradition, creativity and love into my tapestry of natural hairstyles; especially since generations of Black women have been taught to wage war on their coil."
18. Separating the locks. Yvette Smalls, at home, 2007.
19. Ayesha Rahim, crocheting at her home in North Philadelphia, 2006. Her hats and "crowns" are widely prized in the community now; it took years to find her way, to push past institutions that diminished her gifts.
"My art is like spirit work. I was over at Temple University selling the hats and I was impressed because they were telling me what part of Africa they were from. I had no idea! Spirit comes and spirit talks. Spirit tells you where to put this color, this shell. So that's basically how the hats were made....
I used to say, 'Whose hands did they give me?' because they are so big! Lord God! Whose hands are these? They didn't look like the rest of me to me! But God blessed me with these hands, I know that now. He gave me a gift. My hands are special, but I sure didn't know that then. But they are supposed to be like this. These are my hands. But they still are big! Special hands. They are healing hands, soothing hands. There is a power that comes through my hands." - Ayesha Rahim
20. Ayesha Rahim's hands beginning a crocheted hat, 2006.
21. Vera Nakonechny in her special embroidery corner at home, 2007. Vera embroiders designs and practices rituals that were banned for decades in the 20th century, while the Ukraine was part of the Soviet sphere. A whole generation lost touch with these arts.
"I think I've been given two gifts, the gift of healing and the gift of my art, the embroidery. I remember when I was young I was always trying to make people feel better. Eventually, I became a masseuse, after studying in Europe. With my embroidery, I am also healing in a way. I research patterns and rituals in which the embroidered cloths were used, and try to give that back to my community, before all this vanishes." - Vera Nakonechny
22. Elaine Hoffman Watts playing drums as part of a family Hanukah celebration in the basement of her daughter Eileen's house, 2006. As a young klezmer musician, Elaine was often excluded from performances because she is female. Nowadays, thanks to the perseverance of Elaine and others, women are seen and heard in klezmer bands across the country.
Joy, perseverance, friendship: these artists and artistic traditions thrive on the interplay of shared wisdom, talent, and interpretation. Traditions evolve from such interchange. Relationships between and among artists deepen; and artistic and personal understandings emerge anew, keeping the arts dynamic.
23. Antonia Arias (vocals) and Tito Rubio (guitar) accompanying Anna Rubio's flamenco dance class, University of the Arts, Philadelphia, 2007.
"The moon and dots on my tattoo reflect the Muslim influence on flamenco. The polka dots you see on so many flamenco dresses are actually called 'moons' in Spanish. Also, this grouping of smaller dots is a symbol used by sailors to represent travel. I'm a traveler, too." - Antonia Arias
24. Susan Watts (left), Ben Holmes, Elaine Hoffman Watts and Frank London practicing (in the hall, on a table) for a faculty concert at KlezKamp, an annual gathering of klezmer musicians and Yiddish culture enthusiasts in upstate New York, 2006.
25. Michele Tayoun (singing, with raised hand), Roger Mgrdichian (oud), Antonia Arias (vocals) and Tito Rubio (guitar) rehearsing for the Herencia Arabe Project which combines Arabic music and dance with flamenco, at St. Maron's Hall in South Philadelphia, 2005.
"This collaborative experience is unique. And we can't, we shouldn't let it go. Everyone has strengths they bring to it. I love working with this group of people." - Michele Tayoun
26. Michele Tayoun (right) with dancers Anna Rubio (left) and Mariah del Chico, and Tito Rubio (guitar), Joseph Tayoun (drum), and dancer Hersjel Wehrens (seated), as part of the Herencia Arabe Project, St. Maron's Hall, in the heart of Philadelphia's Lebanese community, 2005.
Cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson writes about "life as an improvisatory art, about the ways we combine familiar and unfamiliar components in response to new situations, following an underlying grammar and an evolving aesthetic." Skilled in particular arts, the women pictured on these walls have each been improvising in the face of conflicting loyalties and responsibilities (to family, work, art, community and more). Some have faced exile and war. Others dealt with racism, disparagement, lack of resources, and cultural isolation. They have fought old boys' networks. They have endured, resisted, and sometimes outlasted people who have questioned their innovative approaches to tradition, or their particular (regional, ethnic, local, personal) synthesis of tradition. As they make art, they also make, of their lives, works of art - stitching, composing, braiding, and choreographing the disparate elements - emerging with deepened wisdom and beauty. Their lives are as inspiring as their arts.
27. Ayesha Rahim in one of her crocheted hats, 2006.
28. Susan Watts on stage at South Paw in Brooklyn, New York, 2006.
Antonia Cruz Arias, flamenco cantaora (singer), was born in 1988 in San Francisco. Her paternal grandmother was California-born Spanish singer Elena Acevedo. Antonia was raised in the world of flamenco, but began her formal music and dance training in the classical tradition at age four. She studied classical and jazz technique at the Catholic Institute, flamenco cante at the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco in Seville, Spain, and flamenco dance in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. She has also studied intensively with Jesus Montoya, Gypsy singer from Seville. Antonia has sung for many important artists such as Antonio Hidalgo, Nelida Tirado and Edwin Aparicio, and has shared the stage with other singers including Rocio Soto from Jerez, Spain, Alfonso Cid from Seville and Marcos Marin, and has been the singer for the classes of La Chiqui de Jerez. Antonia sings for all performances of Flamenco del Encuentro and the Herencia Arabe Project. She is a student at St. Joseph's University. She will be performing in the Folklore Project's Dance Happens Here program in December 2007.
Princess Fatu Gayflor is a renowned recording artist from Liberia. A singer and dancer from a young age, she performed often in ritual dances in her home village of Kakata. Later, as a member of Liberia's National Cultural Troupe based in the national artists' village of Kendeja, she was given the title, "Princess" in recognition of her exquisite renditions of songs in most of the languages of Liberia's sixteen ethnic groups. (She herself is of mixed Vai and Lorma ethnicities.) As a young adult, she went out on her own, founding the successful Daughters of King N'Jola dance and music ensemble in the capital city of Monrovia. She has recorded three CDs, and was showcased in Italy by the United Nations World Food Program to bring attention to the plight of Liberians caught in their civil war. In the U.S. since 1999, she has continued performing at Liberian weddings and other community gatherings, and has taught through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts/Arts in Education program, and at both the African Cultural Alliance of North America and the Folk Arts - Cultural Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia. Having lived in the Ivory Coast and in Guinea, she sings traditional songs of many places. She has performed in Folklore Project programs including "Philly Dance Africa" at International House and in the spring of 2007 at World Café Live.
Vera Nakonechny came to the United States as a teenager, and continued studying the various techniques of Ukrainian embroidery her mother had taught her as a young girl. She soon became a part of the strong Ukrainian-American community in Pennsylvania where she expanded her skills as an embroiderer. After the Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Vera was able to return to her homeland where she conducted archival research about folk art traditions, and studied with master craftspeople. She has researched and taught embroidery, beadwork, weaving, and other traditional forms related to textiles and adornment, and volunteers as a teacher of these arts at community sites and at the Ukrainian Heritage Studies Center at Manor College. Vera is also a professional masseuse, having studied in Europe where, she explains, "Massage is integrated into people's idea of how to take care of themselves, of how to prevent illness. Doctors even refer their patients to massage therapists." Her work has been displayed in recent exhibitions at the Down Jersey Folklife Center, and at the Philadelphia Folklore Project, in our 2006 "Community Fabric" show.
Ayesha Rahim made clothes when she was a school child, and continued to grow and develop as an artist. She saw images in her sleep, spirit-driven, crediting her inspiration: "I had not a clue. I am just figuring out how images are in the atmosphere and they come from God. How else could they come? I see them in my sleep. I was a designer and I made the clothes that I saw in my sleep. I didn't have the money to make the outfits that I saw and I would go to my cousin. It only took a dollar for fabric. And all I ever needed was a measuring tape and pins. I never made a pattern. And I came out of High School being 'Best Dressed,' Gratz High School, 1955. I got scholarships to Moore College of Art." Concerned with social issues, wanting to make a difference, and already an active designer for artists, musicians and performers, Rahim found art school an inhospitable place and turned down the scholarship. Eventually, she returned to art, figuring out how to crochet. She had models around her in others, but most of her craft was hard-won, self-taught. She was wearing one of her hats when Charita Powell, from the stand Amazulu, in the Reading Market, saw it and asked for another. That was the beginning. She has been making hats for decades now, and they are prized within the community. She was a featured artist at a salon at the Folklore Project in 2006.
Anna Rubio began her training in dance and music at age four. After studying ballet at the Pennsylvania Academy of Ballet, she started modern dance in her early teens with Joan Kerr and Susan Hess. Anna moved to San Francisco in 1982, continuing her modern training with several teachers, including Lucas Hoving and Ed Mock, and commencing flamenco studies with Rosa Montoya (of the important Montoya Gypsy clan) and with the late Maestro Cruz Luna. By 1986 she was a member of Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco under the direction of Miguel Santos. In 1991 she returned to Philadelphia and became a member of the Flamenco Ole company under the direction of Julia Lopez. Anna and her husband, flamenco guitarist Tito Rubio, spent two years in Spain before returning to Philadelphia, where they now teach at the University of the Arts and perform with their groups Flamenco del Encuentro and Herencia Arabe. Anna was awarded an Artistic Fellowship for the year 2001 from the Independence Foundation and a Leeway Grant for 2004. Anna and Tito return regularly to Spain, where Anna continues her studies with La Chiqui de Jerez, Javier Latorre and Juan Polvillo. She will be performing in the Folklore Project's Dance Happens Here program in December 2007.
Yvette Smalls is a master braider, hair sculptor, and emerging filmmaker, She says, "Hair is my artistic medium and became my mission." She began braiding, dressing and sculpting African American women's hair in the late 1970s, to put herself through school. She was part of a movement of African American women rejecting definitions of "bad" and "good" hair based on European standards, and reclaiming African traditions of beauty. Her mother always told her, "Beauty is as beauty does," and the saying inoculated Yvette against some of the negative self-image she saw in others (from ages nine to ninety, she says) and set her on a journey of self-discovery. She went on to school herself in intricate and varied hair braiding, wrapping, coiling and weaving traditions used in her own extended family across the American South, and across the African Diaspora, from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Kenya as an important form of creative expression representing both the individuality and social status or role of the wearer. In her own work, she draws on a wide range of styles and techniques, approaching each person's hair as the ultimate wearable art. In 1998, she completed a documentary "Hair Stories", recently broadcast on WYBE-TV. She has been a featured artist at ODUNDE and appears at hundreds of schools and community events annually, and in 2006, was part of the Folklore Project's salon series on local folk arts.
Michele Tayoun was exposed to numerous forms of Middle Eastern dance and music growing up as part of an extended Lebanese American family that ran the famous "Middle East" nightclub and restaurant in Philadelphia. Michele had formal training in ballet, modern dance and jazz, and learned Middle Eastern dances from performers at the family's restaurant. Her dance vocabulary combines both Lebanese and Egyptian styles. She has been singing Arabic music at community festivals as well as professionally for the past several years, and continues to enhance her knowledge of Arabic music and song by performing with accomplished regional performers, and participating in workshops with the internationally renowned composer Simon Shaheen. She performs as a dancer and singer with the Spice Route Ensemble and with the Herencia Arabe Project. She was a part of the Folklore Project's Dance Happens Here program in 2005.
Elaine Hoffman Watts is a third-generation klezmer musician. Her grandfather, Joseph Hoffman, a cornet player, came to Philadelphia at the dawn of the 20th century. Hoffman taught other family members the klezmer music he learned as a child in Eastern Europe. Played by the Hoffman family and other musicians at certain times in Jewish weddings, and in the parties that followed, this music became part of a distinctly Philadelphia klezmer repertoire. Ms. Watts' father was Jacob Hoffman, a great klezmer drummer and xylophonist, and a versatile musician who knew many styles of music; he also played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He had come to Philadelphia with his father and followed in the family tradition, making influential recordings in the first half of last century with the Kandel Orchestra, a well-known Philadelphia klezmer group. Elaine Watts was the first woman percussionist to be accepted at Curtis Institute, from which she graduated in 1954. She has performed and taught for more than forty years, working in symphonies, theaters, and schools. Now performing with an ensemble called the Fabulous Shpielkehs, she is featured on a CD, "I Remember Klezmer," which draws on and documents her amazing family musical tradition. As well, she is on the klezmer CD, "Fidl," with Alicia Svigals of the Klezmatics, teaches and performs annually at KlezKamp and has been accepting invitations to play nationally. In June 2000, she was awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. In 2007, she received a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship - one of the top honors for traditional artists in this country. She will be performing in a Folklore Project "Musicians in Residence" concert in the spring of 2008.
Susan Watts, trumpeter, represents a younger generation of the important Hoffman Watts klezmer dynasty. Susan currently plays klezmer with her mother in the Fabulous Shpielkehs. Susan has recorded and performed with noted klezmer artists from around the world, including Hankus Netsky, Mikveh, London's Klezmer All-Star Brass Band, and others. She has taught at klezmer festivals and privately, and performs in a diverse range of trumpet styles. She was a featured artist in the Philadelphia Folklore Project's Women's Music Project for 2001- 2003. She tours Europe regularly, and performed in China in 2006. Also in 2006, she received an award from the American Composers' Forum. She will be performing in a Folklore Project "Musicians in Residence" concert in the spring of 2008.
Over the past 21 years, PFP has worked with hundreds of other women - significant local artists and activists. Here are glimpses from our archive of some of them.
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