Documenting Our Culture
With Rocco visiting Dallas, Texas, tomorrow, we thought we would visit the Dallas-based not-for-profit organization Documentary Arts. Founded by Alan Govenar, Documentary Arts has been championing the folk and traditional arts for more than 25 years. Govenar has been involved with the NEA National Heritage Fellowship program, having written a two-volume biographical dictionary on the Fellows (Masters of Traditional Arts, 2001) and created a DVD-Rom on the Fellows as well, which was included in the agency?s 25th anniversary publication for the program. Currently, Govenar and Documentary Arts are involved in an UNESCO exhibition, including Govenar?s photos of NEA National Heritage Fellows, that will tour to five cities in Belgium between July and December 2010. We talked with Govenar recently about his organization.
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Qi Shu Fang
Photographs by Alan Govenar, Courtesy of Documentary Arts
NEA: Why did you start Documentary Arts?
ALAN GOVENAR: In 1985, I founded Documentary Arts to broaden public knowledge and appreciation of the arts of different cultures in all media. Over the years, I have strived to fulfill this mission by developing and producing films, videos, radio series, arts-in-education programs, workshops, festivals, publications, and interactive media. Folk and traditional arts are a major focus of the work we undertake.
NEA: How has being in Dallas shaped Documentary Arts?
GOVENAR: While finishing my doctorate in Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, I recognized the need to document, preserve, and perpetuate the rich folk and traditional arts that had been largely overlooked in this region for decades. I had long conversations with Bess Lomax Hawes, who had grown up in Dallas and whose father John Lomax and brother Alan Lomax had started their careers here.
The Dallas arts community is diverse, but the interactions between different cultural groups at that time were limited. I had grown up in Boston, and as a child, I loved the large public free concerts and events that were presented all over the city that were so effective in bridging cultures. Between 1981 and 1991, I organized six Dallas Folk Festivals, developed a folk artists in the schools program, produced three ?Traditional Music in Texas? radio series, and released a series of audio recordings of local African-American, Asian, Mexican-American, Native-American, and Anglo musicians. Since then, my work has grown in different directions and has become more national and international in scope. My 21st book, Lightnin? Hopkins: His Life and Blues, was published last month by Chicago Review Press.
NEA: How did you first get involved in the NEA National Heritage Fellowship program?
GOVENAR: My involvement with the NEA National Heritage Fellowship program began at its inception. One of the first folk and traditional artists to receive a National Heritage Fellowship in 1982 was Elijah Pierce, an African-American woodcarver who had a barbershop around the corner from where I was then teaching at Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. Elijah was one of my first serious photographic subjects in the mid-1970s when I was working with Timothy Lloyd to organize folk festivals and exhibitions in central Ohio.
NEA: When did you first begin taking the life-size photos of the fellows, and how did that come about?
GOVENAR: Over the last 30 years my documentary approach has evolved as a result of the widening scope of my ethnographic experience and the ever-changing landscape of technology. When I started doing fieldwork in the 1970s, I had little experience using photographic equipment. Within the scope of my academic training in folklore and anthropology, I understood the importance of visual documentation, but had not developed the technical skills that I soon realized I needed.
I bought an inexpensive 35mm-film camera and started to experiment with different approaches. Through consultation with others working in the field and through trial and error, I gradually learned the skills to produce solid documentation. In my photography, I have primarily focused on process, context, and performance to elaborate the ways in which individuals and cultural groups work, interact, and present themselves.
Then, in 1997 I printed my first human-scale photographs for an exhibition at the African American Museum in Dallas and began to recognize their potential. In 2005, my wife, artist and photographer Kaleta Doolin, had the idea to purchase a Hasselblad camera with a 39 megapixel digital back that had just been introduced. With this camera and its technological advances, my capacity as a photographer expanded exponentially. Initially, I used the Hasselblad to create landscape photographs for the French-American Museum at the Chateau Blérancourt.
A year later, I started to make human-scale photographs of the recipients of the National Heritage Fellowship because I felt that seeing these individuals face-to-face might engage the viewer in unexpected ways. I tried different color backdrops and settings, and finally decided that a neutral black background was at once the least intrusive and the most evocative. I was particularly interested in the ways individuals presented themselves in street clothes as well as in the trappings of their cultural heritage.
NEA: Why are the folk arts important to the nation?s cultural heritage?
GOVENAR: Folk arts are intrinsic to American life and are expressions of our deepest traditions and values. They are by definition both old and new; they may embody the values of the past but are nonetheless innovative in the ways they adapt to present-day concerns.