Arts: Stitched in Time: The Evolution of an Art Form
From Africa to the South Carolina Lowcountry, the coiled basket has traversed the Atlantic and three centuries to emerge from its roots in plantation slavery as a recognized art form
African American art forms conjure thoughts of jazz music, spirituals, and, especially in the Lowcountry, perhaps even metalworking.
Baskets have only recently begun to weave their way into popular consciousness as a rightful component of the black art experience. Research and attitudes about the craft have come a long way in the two decades since the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum hosted “Row Upon Row: Seagrass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry,” its first exhibit dedicated to the basket-sewing tradition. Some experts now argue that basketmaking is the most important and longest sustained African American art form.
In researching baskets of Africa and the Lowcountry, Enid Schildkrout of the Museum for African Art and Dale Rosengarten of the College of Charleston’s Special Collections discovered in the coiled basket tradition a continuous link between two continents. With the help of Deborah Wright at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture and members of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, these curators have documented the parallel evolution of baskets from utilitarian craft to art form in the exhibition “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art,” which opened at the Gibbes Museum of Art in August. The result is the most comprehensive display of coiled basketry ever shown in the United States.
In this sampling from the landmark exhibit and companion book, travel through 300 years and over two continents,
following basketmaking from agrarian skill to entrepreneurial enterprise to celebrated art.
Rice & Rituals
As far back as the 15th century, coiled baskets found roots in the African farming heritage
“Winnowing baskets, grain storage and market baskets, and wooden mortars and pestles were fundamental tools in African grain agriculture,” write Schildkrout and Rosengarten in Grass Roots, African Origins of an American Art, the exhibit’s companion text, noting that rice was intrinsic to early African culture and was celebrated through masquerades, sculpture, rituals, and special gifts.
From the late 1600s through the early 1800s, European slave traders referred to the present-day countries of Angola, Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone as the “Upper Guinea Coast” or the “Rice Coast” because of the widespread cultivation of the grain. As residents of this area were deported to the New World, bringing with them their baskets and knowledge of rice cultivation, it is no wonder that surviving African baskets share close ties with Lowcountry examples from the plantation era. However, while the baskets created throughout Africa were widely varied—including coiled, woven, twined, and beaded forms—the coiled basket seems to be the sole survivor in the Lowcountry, as demand for the basketmaking skill was strictly utilitarian, such as the fanners that were used to separate rice grain from its chaff. In the Lowcountry, note Schildkrout and Rosengarten, “concern for the aesthetic possibilities of basketry was inevitably suppressed in the ‘gulag’ of the American plantation system. The pressure put on basket makers to produce great quantities of work baskets left little opportunity for embellishment and artistry.”
Coiled baskets played an integral role in the Lowcountry’s booming plantation economy from the 17th to 19th centuries
Enslaved Africans began arriving in the Carolina colony in 1670 from the West Indies and via the Middle Passage. “It’s clear from historical evidence that shiploads of people came who grew rice at home, who ate rice at home, who had rice on board,” says Rosengarten. And Carolina planters were willing to pay top dollar for slaves with rice-growing expertise.
Once dispersed to plantations along the South Carolina coast, these “Rice Coast” Africans transformed wild marshland into a thriving rice economy. “Africans who came here not only contributed their labor to the plantations but this very complex knowledge of rice cultivation in this very specific environment,” says Schildkrout. The grasses and sedges that grew here were ideal for making coiled baskets, ubiquitous tools for processing rice. Plantation masters ordered their slaves to make hundreds of bulrush baskets to winnow rice and storage baskets to stow, transport, and eventually export the grain. And the coiled fanner basket became the signature form made by Africans in America.
Transference of Knowledge
Africans brought to the New World expertise in both the techniques and tools needed to harvest rice. “We know that slave ships were provisioned with rice,” says Schildkrout. In order to last the duration of the transatlantic journey, that rice was likely still in its husk. The wide coiled baskets used by the people of the Rice Coast may have also been on board.
As Africans disembarked in the New World toting their baskets and little else, they became geographically, but not culturally, isolated. Slaves’ knowledge not only of the rice culture but also of the tools needed to separate the rice grain from its husk directly led to the prosperity of Lowcountry rice plantations. “In their vitality, variety, and artistry, the baskets teach us that African people and their descendants were the true gold of the colony,” writes culinary historian Jessica Harris. “Their labor and knowledge, initiative and ingenuity, not only produced fabulous wealth in a malarial, waterlogged region, but also endowed their new homeland with a cultural and culinary diversity that remains a vital part of its patrimony.”
A Market Is Born
Early in the 1900s, free blacks in Mount Pleasant crafted coiled basketry into an entrepreneurial enterprise
The Civil War decimated plantations, leaving emancipated blacks with the challenge of evolving into productive members of a new society. “The bulrush ‘work’ baskets once essential to rice production...almost disappeared. Sweetgrass ‘show’ baskets, on the other hand...began to be produced for a new market, leading to the artistic renaissance taking place today,” says Rosengarten.
In the early 1900s, Sam Coakley, a leader in East Cooper’s Hamlin Beach community, entered a supplier arrangement with King Street merchant Clarence W. Legerton, who purchased thousands of baskets from Mount Pleasant sewers each year. Several such companies got into the basket business, but research shows the Legerton-Coakley partnership to be most dominant. Legerton’s Sea Grass Basket Company soon morphed into Seagrassco, a more slickly marketed enterprise that tipped profits to a 90-10 split, with the wholesaler on top and the basket makers earning about 25 cents per piece. When the Cooper River Bridge was erected in 1929, connecting the peninsula with rural Mount Pleasant, enterprising sewers cut out the middlemen in favor of direct sales to motorists traveling Highway 17.
Twentieth-century Africa ushers in a new creativity
As coiled baskets evolved in the Lowcountry from work tools into saleable art, so too did they emerge as a way for many African people to utilize known skills to establish a cottage industry. In Southern Africa especially, basketry has become an important source of revenue in both rural and urban areas.
Beginning as early as 1854, “basket sales were driven by missionaries who thought they could help people use traditional skills to prosper,” says Schildkrout. In 1960, Swedish missionaries founded the Vukani Association and helped transform a cooperative of artists, who were once marginalized by the poverty of the apartheid period, into a major center of basket production; by the early ’70s, more than 1,000 crafters were members. In fact, basketmaking became so prevalent in South Africa’s Northern KwaZulu-Natal region through Vukani and similar spin-offs that local weaving resources were soon depleted, and materials such as telephone wire began to fill the gap. Recycling exists in every aspect of African material culture; their aim is to use and transform whatever materials are at hand. “You see incredible diversity and sheer beauty and inventiveness and expressiveness,” says Rosengarten. “Once you take the shackles off the art, the possibilities are endless.”
State of the Art
Recognition in the American arts community
Over the past few decades, interest in Lowcountry coiled baskets has expanded beyond tourists looking for souvenirs. “As early as 1980, basket maker Jannie Gourdine told a Charleston reporter, ‘I think the biggest change is that people look at us as artists now instead of just basket weavers,’” writes Rosengarten. As such, a growing number of basket makers have shifted their businesses from strictly roadside stands and the downtown market to include craft shows and art galleries. Institutions and organizations such as the Smithsonian and the National Endowment for the Arts have begun to regard coiled baskets with increasing enthusiasm. “The impact of the art market can be seen in the movement toward bigger baskets, innovative shapes, meticulous stitching, and elaborate surface decoration,” continues Rosengarten.
With names like the “roller coaster,” “elephant ear,” and “love knot,” embellishments on coiled baskets have become as varied as the shapes sewers now fashion from sweetgrass, bulrush, and palm. But unlike contemporary African basket makers, who have branched out into man-made and recycled materials out of necessity, Lowcountry artists have held steadfast to natural materials, using longleaf pine needles for contrast in color and textural accents. Some have reintroduced the thicker and more rigid blades of bulrush to offset a diminishing supply of sweetgrass. After being exposed to the New York art scene, Lowcountry native Mary Jackson, who learned to make coiled sweetgrass baskets as a child and is now perhaps the most well-known contemporary sewer, “realized that [she] could continue making baskets with traditional materials but could do it in a different way, making designs that no one had ever done before.” Local basket maker Annie Scott agrees: “[A basket] is an art piece, and we make it as such.”