Photo: Trent Johnson

A Day in the Life with Smithsonian Folklife Festival Director Sabrina Lynn Motley

Before pursuing roles as vice president of Vesper Society and senior director at Asia Society Texas Center, Sabrina Lynn Motley was a little girl often wandering the halls of various Los Angeles museums. 

“Museums made sense to me because they were a place of learning,” she says. “But [they’re] also a place where you can hide out while your imagination soars.”

A professional life behind the scenes, tucked in offices within vast buildings housing art and artifacts, always made sense to Motley. After successful positions in programming and exhibition planning, the Smithsonian tapped her in 2013 as the new director of its famed Folklife Festival.

Delivering a cultural smorgasbord on the National Mall since 1967, the event focuses on global cultural heritage and connects people to hidden gems of society. This year’s theme is The Social Power of Music, and though the programming has been shortened from 10 days to only two because of the government shutdown, it’s sure to once again evoke emotions and conversations.

To learn more about the festival and Motley, we met in her tucked-away museum office and discussed her early enthusiasm for culture, the shortened festival and the responsibility she feels to engage minds.

On Tap: Did you always want to be in the museum industry growing up?
Sabrina Lynn Motley:
Yeah, I was one of those kids. I loved me some museums. I was one of those kids who didn’t like the circus [or] going to parades. My mother would say that I was one of those weird kids who you’d stick in a gallery and I’d be as happy as can be. My mother knew I was weird.

OT: Everybody’s weird to some extent.
Yeah, but let’s be real. I’m an African-American woman of a certain age and I’m sure my mother was like, “I have this little black kid who’s into museums and into this world.” And to her credit, she let me go and explore it. I thank my mother daily for allowing me to be odd and curious. Not every kid gets that, no matter what color they are.

OT: How did you get into festival planning from a sociological perspective?
That is a question I get asked all the time that I have no way to answer. I’m a cultural anthropologist by training and disposition, and I’ve done work in museums for most of my professional life. Before this, I largely focused on an intimate scale, so having this opportunity to do what I’ve done for many years with people who are so committed to this kind of work at a larger scale on the National Mall, which has such historic significance to this country, was a challenge that I wanted to take. Even on my worst days, there’s still something in the back of my head that says this work in this way at this place is really a gift, and I’m really fortunate to be able to do it.

OT: Was there a particular reason you gravitated toward programming? Was it a function of necessity or did you choose to go that route?
SLM: No, I chose to do it because I really like the way that culture brings people together and not always in a loving, peaceful way – because sometimes it’s hard. Culture has the power to connect and disrupt and make change – I wanted to be in a place where I could facilitate that [by] coming to the Smithsonian where there’s research and community engagement components, and a real sense that cultural heritage is valuable.

OT: Switching gears to this year’s Folklife Festival, it’s shrinking to only two days. What kind of adjustment period did you go through upon returning from the government shutdown?
SLM: It was not an easy call to make. Certainly, we know there are people that have been coming to this festival since it started in 1967, and their kids and grandkids come. No one wants to disappoint our visitors. I think in this case, we decided to put those relationships with our partners, our artists and the public ahead of just pushing something out onto the Mall.

Can’t Live Without
A hearty laugh with my mom
Meals with friends and family
Irish breakfast tea
Good movies and better books
Music, music and more music

OT: Was that always the plan to have the Social Power of Music and Year of Music coincide?
SLM: Yeah. Huib Schippers, who runs the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and to a large degree acted as the champion of the Year of Music initiative, has said publicly and privately that an inspiration for the Year of Music was the Folklife Festival as well as the Social Power of Music. It was a nice coming together of a lot of factors.

OT: With this year’s focus on music and the shortened calendar, do you feel any pressure to differentiate it from other area music festivals?
SLM: Probably no more than yes. We have a commitment to do the Folklife Festival and what that means is engaging community, being researched-based and stoking larger conversations. In that way, we have a commitment and the pressure to do what we do, even if it’s two days. People should leave knowing that they had a festival moment.

OT: I feel like all music can carry social context, but what specifically were you focused on when piecing together this year’s programming?
SLM: It wasn’t about genres or songs; it was really about the way music and sound functions. How does music create community? It’s a natural environment, it’s a social environment, it’s all of those things. What I was hoping was to have the festival break open those ideas and surprise people. How are people actively using music and sound to create community and to connect with community? How do musicians make change where they think change is needed and lessen tensions when they think that’s needed? Our job as festival makers is to explore all of that with our visitors.

Folklife festival Must-Haves
Curiosity about the work of festival participants and staff
Quality time at our marketplace and food vendors
A good hat, sunscreen and water
A quiet moment in one of the Smithsonian’s museums
Music, music and more music

OT: What were some of the best parts about planning this particular festival despite the timeline?
The theme has resonated with a lot of people and in some way, we knew it would be meaningful. But the response we’ve gotten both from the artists and the public has been positive. It’s allowed us to link to all sorts of people in community. Honestly, working as a staff, we’ve had to manage our own internal disappointment and frustration over the shutdown. But the fact that we’ve been able to focus on these two days, it’s reminded us of our mission and the opportunity we have to do this wonderful work.

OT: How do you go about identifying themes you want to hit on?
One of the common denominators is trying to be relevant because of the way people think of folk and traditional arts as something old, dead, gone. There are a lot of ways those connect us to a shared humanity, and I don’t mean in a hyperbolic way. I really do think the interweaving of history, knowledge, skills and practice is something that’s very integral to what it means to be human. For us, our notion of folk is broad.

OT: Would you say that the battle for relevance is one of the tougher challenges?
Mhmm. And money. [laughs] On a serious note, you’ve got to fight for attention. Say [there’s] this person weaving this beautiful grass basket from the Georgia Sea Islands or a singer delivering a devastating hip-hop song from a suburb of Paris; if they’re all in the same creative continuum, we want you to stand here and be present with us on the Mall.

OT: These festivals are great because they take a piece of the museum and put it in a more palatable platform. Do you feel a responsibility to spark interest in and push more people toward the more traditional settings?
We try to make the festival very participatory so they can have a conversation or get their hands dirty and make a clay pot. We focus on the reflection of our own culture too; it’s not just you go to the Mall and have a good time [and] then you leave. Can we set up these environments where people carry things away from them that speak to their own lives? It’s a feedback loop we’re trying to facilitate. We take a lot of responsibility and we think about it all the time. Some of it is you just throw the seeds out there and they’ll bloom five or 10 years from now, and we may never know it.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival takes place on Saturday, June 29 and Sunday, June 30. Features of this year’s The Social Power of Music-themed festival include Smithsonian Folkways Recordings musicians, Grammy-nominated rapper GoldLink, producer Ruby Ibarra and others. National Mall in DC; 202-633-6440;

Graphic: Smithsonian American History Museum

American History Museum Highlights Regional Impact on Beers

How do brewers incorporate local flavors in their products, and how does that impact their profitability and overall image for the American consumer?

This question was discussed this past weekend at the Smithsonian’s Last Call event on November 3, which included an evening of conversation, craft beer tastings and historic artifacts. The event was part of the fourth annual Food History Weekend, held at the National Museum of American History. Each year offers a different theme, and this year’s theme was “Regions Reimagined.”

In a panel moderated by Theresa McCulla, historian of the Smithsonian’s American Brewing History Initiative, four American brewers spoke about the sourcing of their ingredients, what inspired them to dive into the beer industry and more. The panelists included Shyla Sheppard from Bow and Arrow Brewing Company in New Mexico, Jon Renthrope from Cajun Fire Brewing Company in New Orleans, Deb Carey from New Glarus Brewing Company in Wisconsin and Marika Josephson from Scratch Brewing Company in Illinois.

Before the panel commenced, guests were able to view a myriad objects on display related to brewing history in America. There were publications from the Smithsonian Dibner Library that ranged from beer histories to instructional books, some dating as far back as the 1890s.

One was a journal from 1988 by Jeff Lebesch, New Belgium Brewing Company founder and Fat Tire creator. Also on display were vintage posters, photos and business ephemera from the 1870s through 1905, as well as Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub tap handles from the 1980s.

During the panel, each of the guest brewers spoke about their emphasis local ingredients.

“It feels great to be able to highlight some of the special aspects of the culture of the area and the native people in a really authentic way,” Shyla Sheppard said. 

“We get all of our malt from a local maltster,” Marika Josephson said. “We get our hops now all from Illinois, and we hired farmers almost three years ago to help us with our farm, and we were able to give them jobs.”

With this, Josephson added, “I think breweries have a lot of power.”

While guests of the Smithsonian’s Last Call event listened to the panel, they were also able to enjoy samples from each brewery as well as appetizers from the museum’s chef, Stephen Kerschner.

Some of the highlights from each brewery included the tart, fairly floral Blueberry Lavender beer from Scratch Brewing Company; the bright and refreshing Denim Tux Blue Corn Lager from Born and Arrow Brewing; the Big Chief Crème Stout from Cajun Fire Brewing Company, which offered soothing French Vanilla and coffee notes; and the Wisconsin Belgian Red, a very cherry-focused beer from New Glarus Brewing Company whose taste resembled a Jolly Rancher.

“I’m always so grateful for public enthusiasm for beer through the lens of history,” McCulla said. “My job is much easier and fun because the public has a sense of investment in the topic.”

For the future, at some point in 2019, McCulla said the public should expect a refreshed food exhibition on the first floor of the museum in the east wing with a new installation that will focus on brewing history. Some of the items that were displayed in Last Call will be incorporated into the exhibit.

For more information about the Museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, click here

Photo: NMAI staff photo,

Native Foods in Flavor Just In Time For Thanksgiving

We’ve all heard the tale of the first Thanksgiving: a feast where settlers from England and Native Americans gathered around a large wooden dining table outdoors and passed turkey, stuffing and other treats around until everyone was full, happy and thankful.

While turkey and stuffing have become staples in the cultural zeitgeist, Native American food hasn’t, until now. The tide is shifting, and according to an September CNN article, Native American fare is undergoing a refreshing revival around the country. In DC, there is only one restaurant dedicated to its promotion: the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe located on the first floor of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Mitsitam menu is designed by Head Chef Freddie Bitsoie, who became the first Native American chef for the cafe in 2016.

“I think the reason why [there is a resurgence] is because of people like myself,” Bitsoie says. “Native food is something that wasn’t popular until Native chefs started talking about it. I had always been taught at a young age that people aren’t going to care until you make them care. So most Native chefs have that mentality. Whatever your point of view is, make them talk about it.”

Bitsoie also references Bobby Flay and Martha Stewart making fried bread on their shows, which caused people to tag and text him snippets with comments indicating the famed and white chefs had no right to culturally appropriate the dish. He disagreed, simply saying that he makes a “damn good” ossobuco, and if he could demo it on TV then he would.

“No Italian chefs would say, ‘I don’t have the right to do that,’” Bitsoie says. “Appropriating Native arts like jewelry [and] fashion, to me, is fine. But food is personal and people want to go home and try things they like. It’s a very fine line to promote and talk about it. But if people are mimicking it, we’re doing what we’re supposed to.”

One reason Native American foods continue to climb in culinary popularity is the fact that they are immeasurably diverse and expansive. As a person without in-depth food knowledge (I’m not really a foodie, if you will), the first thing I think of on mention of Native American food is corn-based dishes and buffalo meat. I was uneducated about salmon planks or the wide variety of soups indigenous chefs have concocted throughout history.

“People really do think boring, bland and grainy when they think of Native foods,” Bitsoie says. “These are things myself and other chefs are trying to change. For instance, New England clam chowder is a soup that has an ancestral path to the North Atlantic. Tribes from Nova Scotia would make soup with clams, sunchokes and sea water. When the English came, they added their cream and butter and that’s how it came to be. I researched and researched to see if there was a clam chowder from England, and I couldn’t find one.”

With Thanksgiving this month, there’s no better time for these dishes to move to the forefront of the culinary world and find homes on menus nationwide. For Bitsoie, Native American foods should still hold weight during the holiday because of its historical significance.

“When it comes to historical stories and historical things, a lot of genocide and other things occurred,” Bitsoie says. “I think more people got along than what we’re portraying, and fed each other. We still have things like the state fair, [which is] a celebration of sharing food.”

Bitsoie says Thanksgivings were pretty standard growing up, with the exception of being at his grandmother’s house where they would pick a sheep and butcher it for an evening meal. These days, his work includes concocting the cafe’s holiday specials. This year’s Thanksgiving options range from your standard turkey to change-up tastes like bison and salmon.

“I think people should be more interested in eating gourd squash,” Bitsoie says. “I think it’s used more as decor right now. What I like to do is rough chop it, toss it in sugar and bake it. It’s a very versatile dish. And I think people should utilize quail a lot more. It’s a very good bird.”

To learn more about the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe and its food specials for the holidays, visit

National Museum of the American Indian: Independence Avenue and 4th Street in SW, DC; 202-633-6644;

Photo: Courtesy of FoldHaus

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man at the Renwick

There’s a temple at Renwick today, but unlike the National Shrine or the National Cathedral, it sneaks up on you. You won’t see David Best’s monumental architecture coming until you’ve walked into it. Best, an American sculptor, has been making temples for Burning Man on and off since 2000, and his latest work is an installation for No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man, on view now in and around the Renwick Gallery.

He’s one of the many stalwarts represented in the exhibition at Black Rock City, the temporary city erected each year in the Nevada desert for the festival. Sculptures include Andre the Giant-sized LED-lit mushrooms and even an incarnation of the “Man” i.e., the one burned at the end of annual festival, and that makes me think of Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage.

Best’s installation is impossibly intricate. It’s installed upstairs, in the main gallery space, known as the “Grand Salon,” which recently housed the Parallax Gap installation. Parallax, I found, was somewhat underwhelming. It looked good in photos but failed to land in person. Best’s temple has the opposite effect.

Best is among what Kim Cook, a Burning Man ambassador and partner in the exhibition, refers to as one of the “greats” of the iconic festival, many of whom were actually present at the preview. Some were in full “burner” regalia and it felt like Night at the Museum.

(Side note, there’s a lot of lingo for this exhibition. Already I’ve used “burner,” Black Rock City, I’m about to use “Playa” and “Cacophony Society,” and, of course, the “Man.” For a full glossary click here. You can find the “Man” under “Man, the.”)

You can also find the “Cacophony Society” in the glossary. This is the “randomly gathered network of individuals united in the pursuit of experience beyond the mainstream” from which the festival sprang. Their history and the history of the festival, from its San Francisco beach origins to the Playa, i.e. the Black Rock desert, is detailed in the adjacent gallery.

The must-see pieces include the “Shrumen Lumen” from FoldHaus collective, which is also upstairs. Another is the massive arch downstairs that recalls a Brothers Quay film and the “Gamelatron,” which is directly opposite the Grand Salon upstairs. There’s also a VR experience downstairs, a “tin pan dragon,” that the artist insisted would eat me, and several sculptures installed on the streets around the Renwick.

Aaron Taylor Kuffner’sGamelatron” though is the one I can’t wait to return to. The piece is a fully robotic gamelan orchestra that’s attached to the walls and so surrounds the listener standing in the middle of the room. If you’re unfamiliar with Gamelan music, imagine an orchestra of pitched percussion with a variety of gongs. It’s a piece that makes you believe, though I couldn’t say in what.

Kuffner’s piece along with some of the aforementioned brought me to believe in the exhibition, so to speak. Before seeing it myself, I was skeptical because Burning Man’s no longer cool and an art of Burning Man exhibition feels like a play for foot-traffic from people unaware that burners are the face of memes, not interest. Even Quiznos had some fun at the festival’s expense. Or check out Thump’s tremendous listicle on the types of people who will ruin Burning Man.

However, that’s all noise and not art. Even my one experience with a burner is noise. (He was a douche who talked at people about his “burn” and no one gave a fuck.) Some of the pieces are pretty damn cool, I’m looking forward to spending more time with it because fortunately the Renwick is free. No Spectators: the Art of Burning Man is on view through January 21, 2019. Check out the Renwick’s behind-the-scenes YouTube playlist as well.

Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: 1661 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, DC; 202-633-7970;

Photos: Michael Loria

A Breezy Summer Home at SAAM: Do Ho Suh

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) on F Street, you can now walk down a corridor that leads you through a New York apartment (in pink), a Berlin foyer (in green) and a hallway in Seoul (in cerulean blue). These are the former homes of artist Do Ho Suhand set against the granite columns inside SAAM, they look like an apparition.

These are Do Ho Suh’s fabric sculptures, his Hubs, and the centerpiece of SAAM’s latest exhibition “Do Ho Suh: Almost Home,” which opened on March 16 and is on view through August 5. The exhibition is the most comprehensive Do Ho Suh exhibition on the East Coast and includes work strictly made for the exhibit, according to director Stephanie Stebich.

Specimen from Apartment A, 348 West 22nd Street

Specimen from Apartment A, 348 West 22nd Street

Stebich lays emphasis on the exhibition as being part of a recent initiative at SAAM to feature artists who may not have been born in America, but who SAAM still recognizes. Other artists recently featured at SAAM include Nam June PaikIsamu Noguchi and Rufino Tamayo (whose exhibit was covered here.)

“We are proud to highlight artists who have contributions to the story of American art,” Stebich says. “Often, they are global citizens and have spent an important amount of time during their careers in the United States, and thus we think they impact our art scene and our lives.”

Hubs has drawn the most attention at the exhibit. It’s so large that you can walk through it, and the color of the fabric is arresting. But, it’s not the only art on view. Along the walls of the gallery, there are what Suh terms “specimens,” parts of his other homes rendered in the same style, and his “thread drawings.” Distinguished curator Sarah Newman recounted her first experience with Suh’s work in her remarks.

Seoul Home 1

Seoul Home 1

“I can vividly remember the first time I encountered Do Ho’s fabric architecture works. It was in 2003, and it’s been lodged in my brain ever since. It’s the perfect paradox of form and idea. It was an exquisitely, almost obsessively realized version of the world. But at the same time it was ethereal, almost ghostly to be in its presence.”

Suh’s Hubs and his specimens speaks to an era of globalization, Newman says, and they speak to the experience of longing for an absent home. This is in fact what Suh also says about his work, according to Newman.



“They’re suitcase homes that he can pack up and take anywhere, and they service his desire to live in the presence of places left behind.”

Suh’s “thread drawings” register more like expressionist paintings, only they are thread embedded in cotton, and, for me, the exhibition could fall flat without these. While the specimens are rendered in God-counting-the-hair-on-your-head detail, they can feel clinical (except for maybe the impeccably done toilet seat or the somewhat kinky Seoul Home 1). The thread drawings, however, exhibit Suh’s humor and personality.

Stairwell from Hubs

Stairwell from Hubs

My Homes, for instance, features a series of homes and figures done in a cross-sectional style. Some of homes stand on the head of a figure, while others seem to come out of a figure’s behind. Hubs may be the breezy summer home of my dreams, but My Homes is the one I’d like to take home with me.

“Do Ho Suh: Almost Home” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through August 5. The exhibition is open daily 11:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. Free entry.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: F and 8th Streets in NW, DC; 202-633-1000;

Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Carnival and a Barking Dog: Rufino Tamayo at SAAM

David Alfaro Siqueiros famously said, “Our is the only way.”

Siqueiros was one of the “big three” Mexican muralists, alongside Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, and he sounds like he was a bit of a bully. The response of his contemporary Rufino Tamayo is excellent.

“Can you believe that, to say that ours is the only path when the fundamental thing in art is freedom? In art, there are millions of paths – as many paths as there are artists.”

Tamayo was another modernist from Mexico, and his path has nothing to do with the social realism of his contemporaries. His paintings are representational, but never mimetic. They’re more surreal and draw on the history of Mexican art, from Mesoamerican ceramics to Mexican popular art (the term for Mexican folk art). 

His work is on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM)’s current exhibition, Tamayo: The New York Years. The exhibit charts his journey from his beginnings in Mexico in the 1920s to post-World War II, when his work defined Mexican modernism for many people, and it explores how his years in New York led him to that end.

E. Carmen Ramos, the exhibit curator, led me from piece to piece. She is deputy chief curator and curator of Latino art for the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She explained Tamayo first traveled to New York City when the dominant attitude of his contemporaries in Mexico became too strict. He was “bit by the New York bug,” Ramos told me, and would live there at various points throughout his career.

New York City was to Tamayo what Paris was to other modernists. He found a community of artist friends – he lived near 14 Street and developed relationships with artists including Reginald Marsh and Stuart Davis – and was exposed to international modernist art including de Chirico and Picasso.

Rufino Tamayo, New York Seen from the Terrace [Nueva York desde la terraza], 1937, oil on canvas, 20 3/8 x 34 3/8 in. FEMSA Collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Roberto Ortiz

Rufino Tamayo, New York Seen from the Terrace [Nueva York desde la terraza], 1937, oil on canvas, 20 3/8 x 343/8 in. FEMSA Collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo by Roberto Ortiz

The influence of de Chirico’s surrealism, and Tamayo’s penchant for culling different geographies and moments, comes out in “New York Terrace” (1937). Tamayo painted the piece after his wife and manager Olga had complained of the poor view from their apartment, Ramos told me. 

The skyline he paints is of NYC, but it very much belongs to Tamayo. The use of color is fanciful, and he depicts a collection of different architectural landmarks alongside one another. The painting is also partial self-portrait – a representation of himself and Olga – and even part still life. This is a watermelon and refers to Mexico, and it pervades 19th-century Mexican still life paintings.

“When’s the last time you saw a red striped building?” Ramos asked as we looked at the painting. “Or a green sky for that matter?”

“It’s been too long,” I replied.

Tamayo encountered de Chirico on his first trip to the big apple in 1926. But it wasn’t until 1939 that Tamayo encountered Picasso, and the experience Picasso’s painting had on him was profound, as it was to so many other artists at the time. Upon seeing Picasso’s Guernica” (1937), he drew inspiration, which emerged in his own “Carnaval” (1941). 

“Carnaval” portrays a couple donning masks and otherwise preparing for carnival. In color and organization of form, the piece is stylized. Here, you can see how Picasso’s African period rekindles Tamayo’s affinity for Mesoamerican ceramic figures and Mexican popular art.

Rufino Tamayo, Carnival [Carnaval], 1941, oil on canvas, 44 1/8 x 33 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1942. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Rufino Tamayo, Carnival [Carnaval], 1941, oil on canvas, 44 1/8 x 33 1/4 in. The Phillips Collection,Washington, DC, Acquired 1942. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Tamayo worked as an ethnographic draughtsman for the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and the figures are informed by what he called “Mesoamerican body proportions,” while the pronounced ribcages of the woman figure come out of the papier-mâché figure tradition of Mexican popular art.

Ramos said that she emphasized researching the masks depicted in the painting, because the interpretation of the work may differ if the masks were associated with one festival or another. But she told me that she discovered the masks are a hybrid of several different masks from all over the country, including Jalisco and Mexico City.

The influence of “Guernica” is heavily brought to bear in “Dog Barking at the Moon” (1942). The former stirred intense discussion around art and propaganda; how artists should represent contemporary times and whether social realism is the best answer. “Guernica” became “very near and dear to Tamayo,” Ramos said, and given his differences with contemporaries, it’s easy to see how.

The painting portrays a black moon that looks tiny by comparison to the colossal and violently red dog. It is one of a series of animal paintings that to my Bauhaus and Der Blaue Reiter-steeped mind conjure up Franz Marc, but Ramos said otherwise.

“His most striking response to Picasso is a series of animal paintings,” she said. “They’re meant to engage the anxiety of World War II and the post-war moment. He was living in New York during World War II and these were very anxious times. He creates this body of work around these desperate, howling, aggressive animals that give a sense of [anxiety], that represent the war not photographically but more allegorically.”

Rufino Tamayo, Dog Barking at the Moon [Perro ladrando a la luna], 1942, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 33 7/16 in. Private collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Rufino Tamayo, Dog Barking at the Moon [Perro ladrando a la luna], 1942, oil on canvas, 47 1/4 x 33 7/16 in.Private collection. © Tamayo Heirs/Mexico/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

A final thought Ramos left me with was her wish that Tamayo’s involvement in the NYC art scene was more well-known. On a ground level, he was involved in publications like The New Masses, an early Marxist publication, and beyond that, he was involved in exhibitions featuring his own work alongside that of artists like Picasso and Rothko.

“When I was reading [contemporaneous] reviews, it was not only the number of reviews, but there was one review I was reading that said he was a ‘fixed star’ [in New York],” Ramos told me. “Look Magazine did a survey of important artists and he pops up as one of the most important artists in New York, so he’s a figure.”

For more on Tamayo read his obituary in The New York Times. Tamayo: The New York Years is on display at SAAM through March 18. The exhibit is open to the public every day from 11:30 a.m. – 7 p.m. The exhibit is also wholly bilingual with panels in both English and Spanish.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: 8th and F Streets NW, DC; 202-633-1000;

Photos: Michael Loria

Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian

The main gallery space of “Americans,” a new long-term exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, has the immersive feel of Nam June Paik’s “Megatron/Matrix” at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art on F Street. Though it isn’t frenetic like Paik’s field of TVs, “Americans” is still mesmerizing, and has the same quality of making familiar objects appear strange.

“Americans” doesn’t read like a typical museum exhibit, and the feeling it leaves you with is quite different as well. This is due to the question that the exhibit poses, which museum director Kevin Gover shared in an exhibit preview before the public opening on January 18. 

“American Indian images, words and stories are all around. Why?”

The exhibit goes into the commonly referenced American Indian stories of Pocahontas, Little Big Horn, The Trail of Tears and Thanksgiving, but it’s the main gallery space that has the most palpable effect, and which so plainly encapsulates Gover’s words.

View from main gallery space.

Stand in the center of the main gallery space, and all around you will see how American Indian imagery is ubiquitous in American branding and how American Indian words are ubiquitous in American geography. You will see countless schools and spirits that take their imagery from American Indians, and there’s even a poster of Cher in an American Indian headdress.

Granted, many of the objects on display come from an older generation, but there are so many more which we encounter still, including Land O’Lakes butter, any number of sports teams (the Washington team chief among them), American Spirit cigarettes and, on the wall, there’s even a deactivated Tomahawk missile.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest plays at one end of the gallery

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest playing in the gallery

The side galleries that go into the aforementioned stories are very interesting and enlightening (e.g., did you know that John Smith was a fabulist and Pocahontas likely never saved his life in so dramatic a fashion, but that her marriage to John Rolfe still saved the life of the colony?) But it’s the main gallery space that is not to be missed.

The main gallery even made me reconsider my Hydro Flask canteen, which I was drinking from during the preview. There isn’t anything particularly American Indian about Hydro Flask, but it’s the Wyoming state sticker on my canteen that gave me pause.


The sticker depicts a bison, and what is that bison but a synecdoche for American Indian imagery otherwise? Will I remove it? No, probably not. I have the sticker because it reminds me of a summer spent camping with friends in Wyoming and Utah, and that reason still stands. But I also won’t ever look at my canteen in a so “la vie en rose” way again.

“Americans” is on view every day from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Learn more about the exhibit here

National Museum of the American Indian: 4th Street and Independence Avenue in SW, DC; 202-633-1000;

"The last image of an american indian i saw was i looked in the mirror"

“The last image of an American Indian I saw was when I looked in the mirror.”