Passing the torch at the Folklore Project

Selina Morales (left) will take over as director of the Folklore Project when Debora Kodish leaves.
Selina Morales (left) will take over as director of the Folklore Project when Debora Kodish leaves. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 04, 2014

When Debora Kodish arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1980s with her new doctorate in folklore from the University of Texas, there was no one in the city documenting everyday life in its many and varied neighborhoods.

No one organization was looking at what the African drummers were doing, what the Hispanic street artists were up to, what the Vietnamese musicians were playing, what the Italians in South Philly were saying - or at why they were doing what they were doing and saying what they were saying.

Kodish and some young colleagues huddled in a room at the Fleisher Art Memorial, and started asking the questions.

From those sessions, a small, fiercely focused independent organization grew - the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a reflection of Kodish's commitment, energy, and voracious appetite for documentation.

Now 61, Kodish is stepping down after 27 years of leadership. Selina Morales, 32, a folklorist trained at Indiana University and a four-year PFP vet, will take the helm of this still-unique, still-focused organization.

The official transition will be marked at PFP's annual birthday bash Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 220 Vine St. There also will be two honorees, percussionists Elaine Hoffman Watts and Nana Korantema Ayeboafo, the former working in klezmer, the latter an African drummer.

"Both totally groundbreaking," Kodish said recently, sitting with Morales in the back gallery of the project's home, a rowhouse on West 50th Street near Baltimore Avenue.

The large front gallery is occupied by the current exhibition "Honoring Ancestors," a joint effort with the Community Education Center, marking CEC's DanceAfrica Philadelphia! festival.

Kodish and Morales sat at a table covered with a red-checked cloth in the Bill and Miriam Crawford Dining Room, a permanent installation in the PFP building. Its walls covered with political images, posters, fliers, and newspaper pages that once adorned the dining room walls of the Philadelphia activist couple's home, it is a prime example of the project's work.

Said Kodish, "I definitely think I'm impatient with the way structures are right now and I think it really needs somebody with a fresh view. I'm fed up with a lot of the ways things seem to work."

For one thing, funders seem less interested in working with organizations like the project than in years past.

"There was more interest in diversity then. Now, I don't think there is," she said. "If you look around and you go to meetings, you rarely see people of color at the meetings when there are grant rollouts."

Morales is not only a generational contrast to Kodish. She is tall and dark; Kodish is small, with round glasses and short brown hair.

"There's change happening all over," Morales said, "particularly in our field and our corner of the field, which is folk arts and community-based practice and also working for social justice or social change locally."

Money is drying up, although the Folklore Project has been able to maintain its annual budget of about $400,000.

Morales won't stop working to help community groups and artists secure funding, but she is realistic about prospects. And she's noticed that the interests of community artists have shifted.

"People are really interested in documentation, in documenting their own experience, their family's experience," she said. "I think that has directly to do with generational change. . . . People are wanting to figure out what they can do to get more involved with documentation."

Of course, the project has always done documentation and maintains a still-growing archive of about 70,000 audio- and videotapes, documents, photographs, and images - the raw footage of the life and art of Philadelphia's neighborhoods.

Exhibitions (like "Honoring Ancestors") make use of the archives, and young artists from communities as different as Philadelphia's Tibetans, Burmese, and African Americans mine the archives for information of how it was in the past, and why things are the way they are now. They also are looking for information on how they can document their own worlds.

"There are not going to be any major changes at PFP immediately," said Morales. "But we will be more explicit about our folk arts and social change mission, taking on projects that really exemplify a place that Debora had the phenomenal foresight to keep pushing at over years, but not always named directly - our interest in documenting and working alongside artists who are trying to make some kind of change or stand up for justice, and using folk arts and resources in that way."



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