Weaving African traditions at the Fowler
The largest of the three, “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art,” a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, explores the significant contributions of African culture to American art.
It features more than 200 objects from Africa and South Carolina, including sculptures, paintings, historical photos and, most notably, a multitude of baskets, a once essential farm tool that played a vital role in the rice culture of early America.
“Rice was the first major global export crop in the colonies, and American planters, including Thomas Jefferson, learned that inhabitants from the west coast of Africa possessed the knowledge and methods of planting rice in tidal marshes similar to the environment of the South’s low country, which stretched from the swamplands of South Carolina to Florida,” said Enid Schildkrout, chief curator at the Museum for African Art and co-curator of the exhibit. “They knew how to create dikes, drain the swamps and maintain the conditions necessary for rice farming.”
They also brought with them the skill of basket weaving.
Two kinds of baskets were needed on rice plantations: a head-carrying basket for storage and a winnowing basket, a flat coiled tray that separated the rice from the chaff. Most were made from local sweet grass.
“Baskets were the essential economic tool that are now being made into works of art,” Schildkrout said. “It’s the oldest continuing African American art form”. In Charleston and Mount Pleasant, S.C., it remains a symbol of identity and heritage for many locals to whom the craft was passed down from ancestors.
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Photographs: Top right, a wave basket by Linda Graddick Huger. Bottom left, Winnowing rice. Photo by Greg Day. From Fowler Museum at UCLA