University of South Carolina

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art



American food, music, celebrations, and arts have been shaped by more than 300 years of contact with Africa. One of the most enduring symbols of that connection is the coiled sweetgrass baskets of the Carolina Lowcountry.

Opening Feb. 13, a major exhibition at the University’s McKissick Museum traces the parallel histories of coiled baskets in Africa and America, starting from the domestication of rice in Africa two millennia ago, through the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the Carolina rice plantation, to the present.

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art tells the parallel history of coiled basket making in South Carolina and Africa.

Brought to Carolina more than 300 years ago by enslaved Africans, the coiled basket was an essential tool in the profitable colonial rice trade. The craft persisted in the form of household as well as agricultural containers, and in modern times has become a desirable souvenir for the tourist trade and a collectible fine art and symbol of African American culture. In Africa, basket traditions have taken a similar route, though arriving in strikingly different visual forms. Featuring over 200 objects, Grass Roots contains baskets, paintings, sculptures, agricultural implements, historical documents and images, and new video footage.

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art will be on view at McKissick Museum until May 8. The exhibit then will travel to the Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC, and then to New York City where it will be featured as an inaugural offering at MfAA’s new 5th Avenue home.

The show is co-curated by Dale Rosengarten at the College of Charleston, and Enid Schildkrout of the Museum for African Art (MfAA) in New York City. It is the flower of twenty-five years of research and a collaboration among four partners — the MfAA, McKissick Museum, the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association of Mt. Pleasant, S.C. Thirty of the exhibition’s South Carolina baskets are from the University of South Carolina’s collections.

“It is thrilling to be able to tell this story through the coiled basketry traditions that forever link the two continents,” said MfAA President, Elsie McCabe. “The exhibition is about baskets in both places, but because of new scholarship brought to bear on the subject, it is really about much more. It explores many rich cultural patterns both lost and maintained; it shows how people have built and rebuilt their heritage over centuries of oppression and opportunity; it reveals how a simple but always beautifully crafted tool has become to be appreciated as an object of art.”

The exhibit has been a major project for McKissick Museum.

“We first started documenting and collecting baskets thirty years ago," said Lynn Robertson, executive director of the museum. "The research and field work we have supported enable us now to see them in a global context. I think if you asked most South Carolinians to name the symbols of our state, the things that best represent our geography and our culture, the sweetgrass basket would be near the top of that list. The wonderful thing about this exhibition and the programs we are planning is that for the first time all of us can appreciate the powerful history behind this tradition and understand the importance of its perpetuation.”

McKissick Museum is planning a spring filled with activities to celebrate the exhibition. A public reception on opening day, Feb. 13, will feature the showing of the acclaimed new film Grass Roots: The Enduring Art of the Lowcountry Basket, directed by Dana Sardet. Workshops, lectures, and other programs will follow in February and March. For a complete listing of events and programs, go to the Museum Website at or call the Museum at 803-777-7251. 

The Grass Roots exhibition was made possible by support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, and the Met Life Foundation. Additional funding for the accompanying film was provided by the Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, the South Carolina Humanities Council, the South Carolina Arts Commission, and the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor.

McKissick Museum is located at the center of the historic University Horseshoe in downtown Columbia. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday and is free of charge and fully accessible to handicapped visitors. Metered visitor parking is available in the Pendleton Street garage next to the McKissick building.

Posted: 01/15/10 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 08/09/11 @ 9:14 AM | Permalink