Sunday, February 14, 2010

An amazing journey through the long tradition of Lowcountry basketry

In the early fall, I was driving from the Francis Marion National Forest down toward Charleston on Highway 17. It had been a while since I’d been down the road and I was appalled. The sprawl of shopping centers and developments stretches nearly all the way to Awendaw.

My dismay at this rapid and ugly development has to be dwarfed by that which must be felt by the basketmaking communities and the basketmakers who have lived and sold their work along the highway for almost 100 years. It’s a bit ironic since the paving of the highway in the 1920s and the tourist traffic it brought was what helped keep the basketmaking tradition, that goes back to the first African slaves brought ashore at Sullivan’s Island, alive.

You can learn about the pressures development puts on the basketsmakers, the history and technique of the craft and its roots in the extraordinary “Grass Roots: African Origins of American Art” at USC’s McKissick Museum.

The exhibition, which is touring the nation with stops at the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum for African Arts, draw heavily upon the McKissick collection of baskets. The museum began collecting them in the 1970s and in 1986 mounted the show “Row Upon Row.” That exhibition was curated by Dale Rosengarten who is also curator of “Grass Roots.”

The exhibition is about equally divided among baskets makes from Mount Pleasant down to St. Helena Island and from many parts of Africa. The research never uncovered a direct link between one place in Africa and the baskets of South Carolina, but it follows the many possible links. One of the major links was rice cultivation. It was a big crop in African and became one in South Carolina making rice plantation owners some of the richest people in the world. Of course they made it through the sweat of slaves. The exhibition does address the issue of slavery with reproductions of ads for slave sales as well as the early 20th century nostalgia white expressed for those lost times that were so good for them without every addressing how horrible they were for blacks. (This is particularly pointed in the watercolors of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith; she was not too long ago held up as a someone who created lovely romantic images, but has more recently become poster girl for the brutal racism of the region.)
Most of the South Carolina baskets in the show were made during the 20th century, sold largely to the tourist trade. They’re practical sorts of things – a place to toss keys and change, maybe serve as a bread tray or sewing baskets although some are modeled on the large shallow “fanners” used to separate rice kernels from the husk. (That’s a method still used in many third-world countries.)
The baskets are made mostly of golden green sweetgrass with contrasting details in deep red-brown pine needles. Some incorporate heavier rush reeds which were the dominant material pre-tourism. In the distant past men were the basketmakers, but in the early 20th century basketmaking became the craft of women although more and more men have returned to it.

The African works (also included are wooden sculptures used in harvest ceremonies) are much more colorful and in recent year the basketmakers there even started using brightly colored wires in their work.
Few really old baskets exist – they were worn out or rotted. This exhibition though has two very old recently discovered baskets: one from around 1850 and another thought to be nearly 100 years older than that. Both are dark and noble with age and solidity.

One of the best parts of the show is several videos.
In one Leroy Browne St. talks about making baskets at the Penn Center on St. Helena Island; the baskets were part of the early 20th century movement to use traditional crafts to create jobs in rural areas. Others show basketmakers working or hanging their wares on the stands that still dot Highway 17. Many of the basketmakers talk about the difficulty of continuing the craft – especially how hard it is to find grass. When traditional harvesting areas like Seabrook and Kiawah islands were developed into gated communities baskermakers were no longer welcome. (That’s changing a bit.)

The major problem with the exhibition is that the McKissick Museum simply does not have enough space or the right space to display “Grass Roots” properly. It is broken up into two wings of the museum’s second floor as well as into a couple of side rooms which makes it disjointed and confusing. 
Although the text panels in the exhibition are extensive, they barely graze the surface of the subject. A catalog published in conjunction with the exhibition contains extensive, in-depth, but accessible essays by Rosengarten and her husband historian Ted Rosengarten, co-curator Enid Schildkrout of the Museum for African Art, one on rice cultivation and “Plantation Painting as Progaganda” by John Michael Vlach. Anyone who sees the show should take along
$35 for the book.

“Grass Roots” continues through May 9. Call (803) 777-7251 or go to

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