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Art meets practical tool in African basket exhibit

Baskets used in the cultivation of rice in the colonies are the highlight of 'Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art' at the Fowler Museum.

October 25, 2009|Liesl Bradner

Weaving a link between American history and the African folk art of basket making is the focus of a trio of exhibits at UCLA's Fowler Museum.

The largest of the three, "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art," a traveling exhibition organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, explores the significant contributions of African culture to American art.

It features more than 200 objects from Africa and South Carolina, including sculptures, paintings, historical photos and, most notably, a multitude of baskets, a once es- sential farm tool that played a vital role in the rice culture of early America.

"Rice was the first major global export crop in the colonies, and American planters, including Thomas Jefferson, learned that inhabitants from the west coast of Africa possessed the knowledge and methods of planting rice in tidal marshes similar to the environment of the South's Lowcountry, which stretched from the swamplands of South Carolina to Florida," said Enid Schildkrout, chief curator at the Museum for African Art and co-curator of the exhibit. "They knew how to create dikes, drain the swamps and maintain the conditions necessary for rice farming."

They also brought with them the skill of basket weaving.

Two kinds of baskets were needed on rice plantations: a head-carrying basket for storage and a winnow- ing basket, a flat coiled tray that separated the rice from the chaff. Most were made from local sweetgrass.

"Baskets were the essential economic tool that are now being made into works of art," Schildkrout said. In Charleston and Mount Pleasant, S.C., it remains a symbol of identity and heritage for many locals to whom the craft was passed down from ancestors.

Today the handmade baskets are considered collector's items, created by accomplished basket artists such as Mary Jackson and Henrietta Snype, a fifth-generation basket maker.

Snype, born and raised in Mount Pleasant, constructs her baskets with a combination of sweetgrass, bulrush, palmetto leaves and pine needles. But she believes it's a dying art form because of a loss of resources and more lucrative options for younger generations.

The two other exhibits in the Fowler show are "African American Life on the Gullah/Geechee Coast," consisting of 40 black-and-white images by photographer Greg Day of daily life in basket-making communities in the 1970s, and "Fowler in Focus: African Basketry Arts, Thinking Outside the Basket," looking at other functions baskets served in African life.

The exhibits run through Jan. 10.

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liesl.bradner@latimes.com

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