“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art,” a traveling exhibition that tells the story of the beautiful coiled basket, will be on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art from June 23 through Nov. 28. “Grass Roots” demonstrates the enduring contribution of African people and culture to American life in the southeastern United States.
The exhibit features about 200 objects, including baskets made in Africa and the American South, African sculptures, paintings from the Charleston Renaissance, historic photography and videos. It 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.
“Visitors will be stopped in their tracks by the exceptional beauty and artistry evident in baskets from Africa and the American South,” said Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the museum.
“In addition, they will learn about the important and enduring connections between Africa and the African diaspora, and how the cultivation of rice and the horrors of enslavement played a role in transmitting the knowledge of particular basket-making traditions from the African continent to the American South. Finally, it is my fervent hope that visitors will come away from this exhibition with a deeper awareness of Africa’s global reach and with a genuine appreciation of the cultural contributions of Africans and people of African descent.”
“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, which addresses the history of the Carolina rice plantations and highlights technological innovations brought to American agriculture by people from Africa, tells the compelling story of the survival of African-American basketry over 300 years. 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, S.C., across the Cooper River from Charleston, where basket makers have taken control of their craft as independent entrepreneurs.
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 Low Country rice plantations and African villages.
“Grass Roots” includes five short films that feature basket makers demonstrating their techniques and telling their stories. Botanists describe experiments in the cultivation of sweet grass and archival footage shows rice processing and basket making in Africa.
Programs and Catalog
Free activities that complement the exhibition include lectures, film screenings, a book signing, musical performances, a roundtable discussion with Gullah community leaders, a Gullah culinary demonstration and tasting and school art workshops. Visit africa.si.edu for a complete schedule.
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated full-color catalog with essays by scholars of African and American history and art. The publication will be available in the museum store.
Organizer and Sponsors
“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art” is organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, in cooperation with Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association.
“Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art” has been supported, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and the MetLife Foundation’s Museums and Community Connections Program. The National Endowment for the Humanities honored “Grass Roots” with a “We the People—America’s Historic Places” designation. Additional funding for the video components has been provided by the Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, the South Carolina Humanities Council and the South Carolina Arts Commission.
About the National Museum of African Art
The National Museum of African Art is America’s premier museum dedicated to the collection, conservation, study and exhibition of traditional and contemporary African art. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. The museum is located at 950 Independence Avenue S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about this exhibition, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the museum’s website at africa.si.edu. For general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000 or TTY (202) 633-5285.