Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art
Cape Fear Museum • 814 Market St.
Free with museum admission
eople in the art world would have historically situated a boundary between what is considered art and craft. The latter is generally defined as utilitarian objects, such as pottery, textiles and baskets. As we enter the 21st century, the aesthetic value of useful objects is being reassessed. We want what we use in our daily lives to reflect our personalities; to achieve a level of usable artisanship is no easy feat.
We’ve all strolled through the market in Charleston, or seen photos of women and men intricately weaving baskets from natural materials. As they easily work the materials together, they create elegant, visually mesmerizing products. Oftentimes conducting conversations, the creation of these baskets becomes an extension of the self and an emblem of life in the South.
Baskets have been around since the beginning of time. Used as containers, they held all of the items we store today in Tupperware. Originating in Egypt, baskets were woven from materials found in the natural environment. Basket-weaving is a tradition throughout Africa and each of the continents’ countries maintain its own unique form of construction. Usually the tradition is passed down from mother to daughter.
There are a variety of complicated techniques to create a basket weave: coiling, splint weaving and round fiber weaving. Each elaborate design is intricately connected by components that have been dyed to create patterns and shapes, all of which possess a certain meaning. Each basket, though made for a utilitarian purpose, represents people and/or experiences.
Traditional basket weaving is still practiced today, but has been reinterpreted with contemporary items like aluminum, newspaper and other materials. The baskets have come to embody aesthetic pleasure. No longer necessary for carrying or storing objects, baskets represent the memory of an African past as it has been reinterpreted into an American object.
A time-consuming art form, the Cape Fear Museum celebrates its history in an upcoming exhibition, “Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art.” It examines the “simultaneous beauty of the baskets as works of arts, useful objects and containers of memory,” according to its press release.
African artisans have been creating baskets for centuries. In fact, there is no separation between art and life. Although, without one specific word for art, objects made for daily use were created to be appeasing to the eye as much as practical for use. When people of African descent were brought to America, their traditions became a part of a shared heritage.
Designed to coincide with Black History Month, this exhibit examines a material object that represents the African experience in America. “African slaves who arrived to work in the rice plantations in the Carolinas used sea marsh grass to make coiled baskets,” Amy Kilgore, public relations specialist at the Cape Fear Museum, states.
Baskets are made from grasses, roots, animal hair, tree bark, palmetto leaves and other natural fibers. These organic materials are used to create beneficial art that reflects the practicality of the environment. Created by artisans living throughout the United States and organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City, the basket exhibition reflects Southern tradition.
“In recent years, African American crafts and African American history has become a more widely valued part of the American experience,” Kilgore continues. “These lovely baskets provide a direct link back to Africa, and they help illuminate the ways in which people of African descent have made valuable contributions to our American story.” American art is not solely American, but it does comprise a variety of traditions. Such Americana customs and roots are examined and praised during February.
The exhibition provides a variety of examples of coiled baskets, such as the one by Dorothy Washington, from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, entitled “Openwork.” Made from sweet grass, bulrush and palmetto, the basket exemplifies skill and delicacy. The detail lies in different materials used to design something of understated beauty: They curve and undulate with ease.
Centered around discovering African influences on art and culture in the lower Cape Fear, each Saturday (February 4th, 11th,18th and 25th, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; free with admission) the focus of the museum’s learning center is on African art. Here, families can create their own African-influenced baskets and pieces indicative of the style of locally revered artist Minnie Evans. Evans was a housekeeper for the Jones family’s 2,200 acre estate, Pembroke Park (now Landfall) and took up drawing in 1935 after the voice of God called her to “draw or die.” Her work is kaleidoscopic in color and imagery, dominated by geometrical circles and lines, done in wax crayon, which evolved into pencil and eventually oil. The glass bottle house in Airlie’s historic gardens is resurrected in her honor, and her work still shows at major museums across the country, including the Smithsonian and the American Folk Art Museum.
Cape Fear Museum’s “Grass Roots’ exhibition recognizes the variety of traditions which illustrate the U.S.’s artistic heritage. “We believe it will be of interest to members of the community because it explores a rich and fascinating history, and it shows how a once utilitarian artifact became valued as an art form,” Kilgore says.
“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art” will open January 28th and continue through March 16th. The exhibition is free for members and included with museum admission.