Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art
In Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art, the humble but beautifully crafted coiled basket becomes a prism through which audiences learn about the creativity and artistry characteristic of Africans in America from the 17th century to the present. Grass Roots traces the parallel histories of coiled baskets in Africa and America starting from the domestication of rice in Africa two millennia ago, through the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Carolina rice plantation, to the present. Early examples of basketry from both Africa and the Americas show the striking similarity between the coiled baskets used to winnow and transport rice on both sides of the Atlantic. By following the trajectories of African and African-American baskets and their makers, the exhibition illuminates the origins and evolution of an ancient art in the global economy and interprets under-explored areas of American and African history. Paintings from the early 20th century, archival and contemporary photographs, and interpretive texts, show visitors how the coiled basket is a repository of history as well as an aesthetic object of beauty.
On both continents, as the original agrarian context for baskets disappeared, changing definitions of art and craft created new audiences for baskets; what was once a utilitarian object became a valued commodity and, in some cases, a magnificent work of art. In Georgia and South Carolina, as in south and western Africa, virtuoso basket makers now prize form over function; craftsmanship, sensitivity to materials, ingenuity of design, and seriousness of artistic intention have become important arbiters of value. Once fabricated to winnow rice and hold food, tools, and valuables, the coiled basket is admired today for containing and shaping space itself. Short films shown throughout the exhibition feature basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories.
A 272-page, full-color catalogue includes essays by Judith A. Carney, professor of geography at University of California, Los Angeles; Jessica B. Harris, culinary historian; Sandra Klopper, vice dean, Arts (Drama, Fine Arts, and Music) at the University of Stellenbosch; J. Lorand Matory, professor of anthropology and of African and African American studies at Harvard University; Dale Rosengarten, historian; Fath Davis Ruffins, curator of African American history and culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; Enid Schildkrout, chief curator and director of exhibitions and publications at the Museum for African Art; Peter H. Wood, professor emeritus, Duke University; and John M. Vlach, professor of American studies and anthropology and director of the Folklife Program at George Washington University; with an introduction by Theodore Rosengarten, independent scholar; also accompanied by a 30-minute film, Grass Roots: The Enduring Art of the Lowcountry Basket.
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.
Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art 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.