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Grass roots: Weaving the history of African art in America

An advertisement that ran in Charleston newspapers announced the sale of a valuable agricultural commodity: Cotton and Rice Negroes.

The auction was held at 11 a.m. at Ryan's Mart on Chalmers Street.

The date was Sept. 25, 1852.

The reproduction of the poster hangs in the exhibition space of McKissick Museum. It's part of "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art," the new show that opens Saturday.

Beautiful and intricately woven and coiled sweetgrass baskets from Africa and the Carolina Lowcountry are the centerpiece of the exhibition. But this is about so much than a hand craft.

"Grass Roots" is American history.

"This is the earliest African inspired art form in America," said Dale Rosengarten, a co-curator of the exhibition. "Because it's so localized, it really has not achieved the national and international recognition it possibly could."

The exhibition, a partnership between the Museum for African Art, the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, McKissick Museum and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, includes 30 baskets from USC's collection.

From here, the show will travel to the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and then to New York for the inaugural show at the Museum for African Art's new home Manhattan home.

"We're really putting the Lowcountry tradition on a higher profile," said Rosengarten, a professor at the College of Charleston.

That tradition includes the sale of slaves. Another mid-19th century auction sheet lists the specialty - engineer, house servant, field hand, seamstress - names and ages of the commodities.

Hercules, Betsy, Port Royal and Hard Times, a 21-year-old field hand, are a few of the 17 Rice Field Negroes up for the highest bidder.

Cotton production has the reputation of plantations and slave quarters throughout the South, but on the Lowcountry coast, rice was king. South Carolina was the leading producer of rice in the South from the early 18th century until the late 19th.

The slaves transported from West African possessed the knowledge and expertise in rice cultivation, particularly in the winnowing of the delicate rice crops. They used a fanner basket, a flat oval basket with a short lip, to sift the rice, tossing it in the air and allowing the chaff to separate.

"The West Africans were brought here to harvest rice," said Jason Shaiman, McKissick's chief curator of exhibitions. "A lot of slaves were picked from areas that grew rice to grow rice on plantations."

LEARNING TO WEAVE

Nakia Wigfall recalled sitting on the floor next to her mother as she worked.

"Everything that fell from her lap, I started picking it up and imitating her," Wigfall said. "But when she was done, mine didn't look like hers.

"I started to ask questions."

Her mother made sweetgrass baskets, and she began teaching Wigfall the craft when she was four years old. To Wigfall, now 50, basketmaking is part of her ancestry, a way of life.

Once used primarily as an agricultural tool, basketmaking has evolved into decoration, art.

"I just thought I would be staying on Highway 17 making baskets forever," she said. "I had no idea that it would travel to museums."

While previewing the exhibition, one noticed two immediate differences between the West African and Lowcountry baskets: color and build. The coastal baskets experiment with shape and form but maintain consistency in color and weave.

The African baskets are detailed with color, the sweet grass dyed and sometimes woven into geometric patterns. Some of the modern baskets are made of stripped wire and synthetic fibers.

The differences have to do with culture and resources.

"When you get to a new world," said Valinda Littlefield, a USC associate professor of history, "you have to adapt to what you have."

"Here people are often very conservative and traditional," Rosengarten added. "(They) always almost dogmatically stick to traditional repertory."

Both styles have produced art.

"This is a skill that's been passed down from generation to generation and it's still very much alive and vibrant," Littlefield said. "The kind of creations they come up with is art."

Such a consideration, though, is a fairly new development. Lynn Robertson, the museum's executive director, said McKissick began collecting baskets in 1980.

"It represents a whole way of life and a resilience of a tradition that has lasted 300 years," Robertson said. "Something that is technically and aesthetically imaginative is taking its place at the table" of fine art.

If you visit, say, Charleston, it appears that there's an abundance of basketmakers at The Market and on U.S. 17. But will the next generation, who have been reared around the craft, practice it?

Wigfall, who runs a business out of her home, has a son and daughter, both of whom are in college. He wants to be an accountant and she wants to be an aeronautical engineer. They both know how to make baskets.

"They're focused on education, which I stress," she said. "But I also stress carrying on the tradition. It would be a shame to let it just die out."

For Wigfall, the skill is something that has to be passed, perhaps to a curious child that mimics their parent and asks questions.

"I think about the whole history brought over from our ancestors, how hard they worked to make the baskets and how they were used," she said. "It's part of our culture. It's part of our history.

"To give it to someone else, it would be defeating the purpose. It's not authentic."

THE FIBER

Sweetgrass, which is native to the South, blooms with a pretty pink flower. Since the 1970s, though, the supply of natural sweetgrass has been tightening.

Basketmakers have substituted with bulrush, a more rigid grass. Rosengarten said there's been a significant effort to increase the supply of sweetgrass as botanists and land developers have been meeting to reestablish the plant.

"As long as the sweet grass lasts," the basketmaking tradition will survive, Littlefield said. "Think about what this small environmental plant is offering to the world."

Here's the dilemma: Sweet grass can't just be planted anywhere. It's natural habitat is sandy areas.

In Charleston, there are blossoming sweet grass plots, including outside Rosengarten's office on the College of Charleston's campus.

Sweet grass is supposed to be stiff and not easily broken.

"Just one tug and it broke in our hands," Rosengarten said about the time she and a basketmaker pulled on the plant on campus. "It remains to be seen if it's going to be grown in a habitat that makes it strong enough for basketmaking.

"The plant doesn't produce as strong a fiber."

The baskets exhibited in "Grass Roots" are indelibly strong, with several more than 100 years old.

Some were even made before Cotton and Rice Negroes were auctioned on that September day on Chalmers Street in Charleston.

"Grass Roots" exhibits that it's impossible to ignore the American history found in sweet grass.

IF YOU GO

"Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art"

WHEN: Saturday through May 8

WHERE: McKissick Museum, 816 Bull St.

TICKETS: Free

HOURS: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

INFORMATION: (803) 777-7251 or http://www.cas.sc.edu/mcks

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