Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art presents the remarkable beauty of coiled basketry and demonstrates how the utilitarian rice fanner and market basket can be viewed simultaneously as objects of use, containers of memory, and works of art. Grass Roots features approximately 225 objects including baskets from the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia and from diverse regions of Africa, as well as African sculpture from the rice-growing societies which, through the agency of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, exported their cultures to America.

In this exhibition, running from June 23, 2010 - November 28, 2010 at the Museum for African Art, the humble but beautifully crafted coiled basket becomes a prism through which audiences will 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. There will be five short films that feature basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories. "The local community of basket makers, many of whom have made baskets that are in the exhibition, is proud to be involved with this project," said Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, Project director for the annual Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival held in Mount Pleasant, home of the original sweetgrass basket makers.

Grass Roots, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York in collaboration with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, is curated by Enid Schildkrout and Dale Rosengarten with input from an advisory board of eminent social historians, art historians, anthropologists, and contemporary basket makers. A 272-page catalogue will accompany the exhibition, as well as a 30-minute film.

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