In Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art humble yet exquisitely crafted coiled baskets demonstrate one of the enduring contributions of African peoples and cultures to American life. Featuring more than two hundred objects including a myriad of baskets made in the American South and Africa, African sculptures, watercolors from the Charleston Renaissance, historic photographs, and videos of basket makers in South Carolina’s Gullah/Geechee region demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories, the exhibition shows how a simple farm tool once used for processing rice has become a highly collectible work of art and an important symbol of African American identity.
In Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art exquisitely crafted coiled baskets demonstrate one of the enduring contributions of African peoples and cultures to American life. Featuring more than two hundred objects, a myriad of baskets made in Africa and the American South, African sculptures, watercolors from the Charleston Renaissance, historic photographs, and videos of basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories, the exhibition shows how a simple farm tool once used for processing rice has become a highly collectible work of art and an important symbol of African American identity.
Grass Roots traces the entwined histories of coiled basketry in Africa and the United States, starting from the domestication of rice in West Africa, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the little-known migration of African rice culture to America. The exhibition addresses the history of the Carolina rice plantation, highlights the technological innovations brought to American agriculture by people from Africa, and tells the compelling story of the survival of African American basketry over three hundred years.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the art of basketry continues from generation to generation. In South Carolina and Georgia, as in many parts of Africa, virtuoso basket makers invent forms, experiment with new materials, and perfect the techniques they have learned from their parents and grandparents. The exhibition features baskets made by contemporary American basket artists including Mary Jackson (a 2008 MacArthur Fellow) and Henrietta Snype, African basket makers Beauty Ngxongo and Bester Nhlengethwa, as well as historic examples—some dating to the early 19th century—from Lowcountry rice plantations and African villages.
African basket makers often combine different techniques and materials in a single basket and add color or beading for decoration. On rice plantations in the Lowcountry—the coastal region from North Carolina to Florida—the predominant technique was coiling and the preferred materials were bulrush (Juncus roemerianus) bound with splints of white oak (Quercus alba) or stalks of the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Today, Lowcountry basket makers prefer to use sweetgrass (Muhlenbergia sericea), in combination with bulrush and pine needles (Pinus palustris), sewn with strips of palmetto leaf (Sabal palmetto).
The Lowcountry Plantation and Rice Culture
From the founding of the colony of Carolina in 1670 through the end of the transatlantic slave trade to North America in 1807, about ten percent of all Africans arriving at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, came from the region then known as the “Rice Coast” or “Upper Guinea Coast.” An equal number came from Congo and Angola, where farmers did not grow rice, but used coiled baskets to winnow other kinds of grain. The vast majority of people in the Lowcountry were of African descent, and most of them lived in compact settlements on large estates known as plantations. A section of the exhibition explores the rice culture of the plantations and features several stereographs of rice cultivation, beautiful plantation baskets, and tools unique to rice agriculture.
At the end of the Civil War, coastal rice plantations lay in ruins. Efforts to revive production persisted for fifty years until a series of hurricanes dealt a deathblow to the industry. Fueled by nostalgia for a lost civilization, descendants of the plantation elite memorialized the world of their parents in paintings, prints, and drawings, prose, poetry, and drama. What some recalled as a golden era, however, signaled memories of hardship and suffering for others.
In the 1920s and ’30s, the figure of a stately woman balancing a basket on her head in African fashion became an icon for a group of artists and writers whose work has come to be known as the Charleston Renaissance. Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, Alfred Hutty, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and others established an art scene in Charleston and several examples of their work from this period are displayed here.
The next sections of the exhibition show how African rice, sometimes called “red rice,” was transplanted to the American South. African baskets made for winnowing rice, calabash covers—including newer ones made with colored synthetic wrapping material resourcefully obtained by unraveling commercial sacks of sugar, rice, and onions—elegant sculptural figures of wood used to guard the rice fields, and other objects related to the rice harvest attest to the long and important history of rice in Africa. Also included are Congolese and Angolan basket forms, notably baskets with stepped lids and footed bowls, which were adapted for use on rice plantations.
With the completion of the Cooper River Bridge in 1929 and the paving of Highway 17, the major coastal artery that passes through Charleston, basket makers began hanging their work on roadside stands and selling directly to tourists and local customers. Freed from middlemen, basket makers profited as they could charge the retail price for their baskets.
But for later generations things have changed as people have adapted to a faster pace of life and branched out into other professions. Real estate development has swallowed fields and woodlands, destroying sweetgrass habitats or cutting off access to basket-making materials. With a renewed interest in Gullah/Geechee culture since the early 1990s, however, the sweetgrass basket has become an object imbued with a great deal of meaning and pride, and some efforts are underway to grow sweetgrass commercially in the region.
Today, in Africa, a wide variety of basket traditions coexist. While methods are time-honored and stable, materials can be new and changing. As natural resources become scarce, African basket makers adapt by incorporating modern materials into their work. In The Gambia, for example, plastic bags are cut into strips and used to bind the rows of a footed basket. In the cities of South Africa, some people make baskets with no natural fiber at all, creating fabulous multicolored platters from copper and plastic-coated telephone wire.
Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art is curated by Enid Schildkrout, chief curator and director of exhibitions and publications at the Museum for African Art, New York, and Dale Rosengarten, curator and historian, Special Collections, College of Charleston Library. The exhibition has been supported, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the MetLife Foundation’s Museums and Community Connections Program. The National Endowment for the Humanities honored Grass Roots with a “We the People – America’s Historic Places” designation. Additional funding for the video components has been provided by The Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, the South Carolina Humanities Council and the South Carolina Arts Commission.
Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art is organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, in cooperation with Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association.
The Los Angeles presentation is made possible through the generosity of Barbara Goldenberg and the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund.
Funding for the accompanying programs is provided by the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, and Manus, the support group for the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Media sponsorship provided by edible Los Angeles.