Hello Kitty in Kimono: Exhibiting the Everyday Lives of Master Traditional Artists

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If there’s such a thing as a “master curator,” Leia Maahs qualifies as one. As the program manager of the Southwest Folklife Alliance, she handles a lot of people, information, and cultural expressions. And for the past few months, she’s been curating a special exhibit for Tucson Meet Yourself to showcase master traditional artists along with their art forms, practice, and culture.

Leia Maahs
Leia Maahs with her “blueprint” for the Masters of Traditional Artists exhibit.

Part of that process has meant drawing and re-drawing a blueprint design of the exhibition. A wall dedicated to each artist will reveal aspects of his or her practice, culture, or life. Maahs’s goal is to help viewers see and experience where traditional art forms come from and how they not only express cultural heritage but are reflect of contemporary culture.

“I want people to step into the artists’ lives in an immersive experience of their cultures and everyday expressions,” Maahs said.

SFA’s Master-Apprentice Artist Award program recognizes tradition bearers for their skill, commitment, and preservation of traditional art forms. Since it began in 2014, the program has awarded support to 19 master artists and their apprentices.

The TMY exhibit, “Masters of Traditional Arts,” features 10 of them—Rod Ambrose, African American storyteller; Carmen Baron, Baile Folklorico costume maker; Ron Carlos, Salt River Maricopa traditional potter; Zarco Guerrero, woodcarver/maskmaker; Mari Kaneta, traditional Japanese dancer; Kevin Lau, Chinese Lion dancer; Gerald Lomaventema, Hopi overlay jeweler; Felipe Molina, Yoeme/Yaqui ethnobiologist and traditional storyteller; Reuben Naranjo, Tohono O’odham potter; and Peter Rolland, Old Time fiddler.

Master Artist Zarco Guerrero. Photo credit: Steven Meckler

Zarco Guerrero, a master mask maker/wood carver and 2015 awardee, was supported by SFA to make a Toltec drum called the huethuetl. “He used his award to mentor Hector Moreno, an emerging folklorico dancer, to connect more deeply to his dance company’s indigenous roots. They did that by incorporating the huethuetl into their repertoire,” Maahs said.

Rod Ambrose, a 2016 awardee, is a master storyteller and playwright whose work draws from rich traditions of expression from African and African American culture. Ambrose considers himself a “modern-day griot,” borrowing from the West African traveling poet, musician, or storyteller who shares stories from village to village.

“That tradition still exists in African American culture. You see it in spoken word poetry, hip-hop music, gospel, and playwriting,” Maahs said.

Once a muralist in San Francisco and an organizer of Tucson’s early chalk painting festivals, Maahs understands how disparate pieces can fit together on a wall or in a space. Also a former grants manager at the Tucson Pima Arts Council (now the Arts Foundation of Southern Arizona), she has developed a deep understanding about the significant roles artists and art play in communities and livelihoods.

Another of her goals for the exhibit was to illustrate how these artists’ traditions play an active role in maintaining and reflecting contemporary culture and activity. “When people think of ‘traditional,’ they often think of art forms that are no longer in practice or no longer relevant. That’s simply not the case,” Maahs said.

The display for traditional Japanese dancer Mari Kaneta is a good example how traditional and contemporary forms meet. It includes four Hello Kitty figures dressed in kimono from Kaneta’s collection.

Mari “Suzuyuki” Kaneta
Master Artist Mari “Suzuyuki” Kaneta. Photo credit: Steven Meckler

For Kaneta, the dolls illustrate how the traditional and contemporary go hand in hand. Her company, Suzuyuki-Kai, teaches traditional dances that have been passed down for centuries. “She’s very clear about the how Japanese dance has always been an expression of contemporary culture, from Kabuki to kimono. She has even collaborated with contemporary Japanese anime illustrators because that is part of Japanese culture today,” Maahs said of the master artist.

The exhibit also showcases how Felipe Molina, a Yaqui ethnobiologist, sustains his traditions and indigenous foodways with a display of traditional foods that are eaten in homes today as well as natural building materials such as vaaka, a reed used for the creation of cultural objects. The exhibit will teach visitors about Yaqui language as they engage with objects from Molina’s home, Maahs said.


Master Artist Kevin Lau. Photo credit: Steven Meckler

The display for Chinese Lion Dancer Kevin Lau includes a gift from the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center of a blown-up photograph of the former Gin Soo Dung Chinese Market on South 3rd Ave. The elaborate headdress of the lion dancer head will be positioned near the doorway.

“The installation depicts a Chinese New Year tradition animated in Chinese communities where the lion dancer travels through the neighborhoods, eating the cabbages or oranges put out for him in the doorway as an offering of good luck. It is meant to celebrate our rich Chinese culture here in Tucson and learn about the role of the Chinese Lion dancer off stage,” Maahs explained.

Gin Soo Dung grocery, S. 3rd Ave. Photo courtesy: Tucson Chinese Cultural Center

Traditional knowledge is not often taught in workshops or institutions, but is passed on at kitchen tables within families or in communities through cultural expressions. It often happens one-on-one.

The exhibit highlights this transference of knowledge via a small stage where apprentices will informally share aspects of their practice on an off throughout the weekend. Kaneta’s apprentice Suzu Igarishi will dress a child in a kimono on Sunday. Reuben Naranjo’s apprentice, Kathleen Vance, will drop in to burnish clay pots and answer questions about the art form, Maahs said.

The interactive exhibit also offers visitors a chance to touch or use some of the cultural artifacts. People can pick up sticks and play the huethuetl drum, for instance, pick up the violin or guess how many vaaka it takes to make one mat. Costume maker Carmen Baron has lent her grandmother’s sewing machine for people to view.

Such art forms have validation mechanisms within their own cultures, and masters are recognized by those within their communities, Maahs said. “The SFA Master-Apprentice Award program’s goal is to celebrate those artists who’ve already been validated by their communities, share what we learn about their art forms, and support the next generation of tradition bearers in Arizona.

While the master artists themselves won’t be physically present in the exhibit, they can be seen elsewhere at Tucson Meet Yourself throughout the weekend. Ambrose, Guerrero, Kaneta, and Lau, along with Old Time fiddler Peter Rolland, also represented in the exhibit, will perform on various stages during the festival. Hopi jeweler Gerald Lomaventema and his apprentice Delwyn Tawvaya in the folk arts area, and potters Ron Carlos and apprentice August Wood, as well as Reuben Naranjo and apprentice Kathleen Vance will share their work in the Tohono O’odham pavilion all weekend.

Master Artist Reuben Naranjo. Photo credit: Steven Meckler

Celebrating and making visible master artists in various traditions is one of the legacies of Tucson Meet Yourself. One of more than 20 similar programs in the country, the Master-Apprentice program is one way that SFA carries on the spirit of the festival year-round.

“We’ve definitely borrowed from those other programs, but our uniqueness is in the tradition bearers who work and reside in Arizona,” Maahs said.

The annual TMY exhibit has a good track record of exposing traditions and heritage to large audiences. Last year the City of Gastronomy exhibit drew 6,000 viewers, for example.

Maahs hopes for that many visitors or more to this year’s exhibit. “We’re honoring artists who are committed to continuing to their way of life through their cultural expression. They are masters with the highest level of skill and integrity. We want everyone to celebrate that transfer of knowledge and be inspired by their work. It is an important part of our cultural fabric here in Arizona.”








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