Wednesday, May 19, 2010
“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art” at National Museum of African Art
“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art,” a traveling exhibition that tells the story of the beautiful coiled basket, will be on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art from June 23 through Nov. 28. “Grass Roots” demonstrates the enduring contribution of African people and culture to American life in the southeastern United States.
The exhibit features about 200 objects, including baskets made in Africa and the American South, African sculptures, paintings from the Charleston Renaissance, historic photography and videos. It traces the history of the coiled basket on two continents and shows how a simple farm tool once used for processing rice has become a work of art and an important symbol of African American identity.
“Visitors will be stopped in their tracks by the exceptional beauty and artistry evident in baskets from Africa and the American South,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the museum.
“In addition, they will learn about the important and enduring connections between Africa and the African diaspora, and how the cultivation of rice and the horrors of enslavement played a role in transmitting the knowledge of particular basket-making traditions from the African continent to the American South. Finally, it is my fervent hope that visitors will come away from this exhibition with a deeper awareness of Africa’s global reach and with a genuine appreciation of the cultural contributions of Africans and people of African descent.”
“Grass Roots” traces the parallel 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 migration of African rice culture to America. The exhibition, which addresses the history of the Carolina rice plantations and highlights technological innovations brought to American agriculture by people from Africa, tells the compelling story of the survival of African-American basketry over 300 years. While the need for agricultural forms has declined, coiled baskets continue to be made as objects of beauty. The exhibition focuses on the coastal town of Mt. Pleasant, S.C., across the Cooper River from Charleston, where basket makers have taken control of their craft as independent entrepreneurs.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the art of basketry continues to be passed down 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 and African basket makers as well as historic examples, some dating to the early 19th century from Low Country rice plantations and African villages.
“Grass Roots” includes five short films that feature basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories. Botanists describe experiments in the cultivation of sweet grass and archival footage shows rice processing and basket making in Africa.