Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, The Threshing Floor with a Winnowing House, ca 1935, Watercolor on paper, H. 43 x W. 56 cm, Gibbes Museum of Art / Carolina Art Association.

The Culture of the Coiled Basket from Africa to the Southeastern U.S.

Woman with basket mats on her head, Boundam Est, Senegal, 1998, Photo: Dale Rosengarten.

Egg basket, Elizabeth Mazyck, South Carolina, Accessioned in 2002, H. 38 cm., American Museum of Natural History.

Pearl Dingle at her family’s basket stand on Highway 17, William C. Sturtevant, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, 1959, Collection of Sally McLendon.


Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting Street
South Carolina
Grass Roots: African Origins
of an American Art

August 29-November 30, 2008

Through the story of the beautiful coiled basket, Grass Roots revisits the history of the southeastern United States and demonstrates the enduring contribution of African people and culture to American life. Featuring over 200 objects, including baskets made in Africa and the American South, African sculptures, and paintings from the Charleston Renaissance period, the exhibition 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.

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 addresses the history of the Carolina rice plantation and highlights the technological innovations brought to American agriculture by people from Africa. The exhibition tells the compelling story of the survival of African-American basketry over 300 years.

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 Lowcountry rice plantations and African villages.

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, South Carolina, across the Cooper River from Charleston, where basket makers have taken control of their craft as independent entrepreneurs. “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: African Origins of an American Art includes five short films that feature basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories. The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated full-color catalogue with essays by acclaimed scholars of African and American history and art.

Grass Roots, is curated by Enid Schildkrout, Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum for African Art, New York, and Dale Rosengarten, Curator and Historian, Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, with input from an advisory board of eminent social historians, art historians, anthropologists and contemporary basket makers.

Double basket, Wilcox County, Alabama, Circa 1850, D. 33 cm, McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina.

Bowl, Ovimbundu, Angola, Collected in 1929 by Wilfred D. Hambly, D. 62.2 cm, The Field Museum of Natural History.