Grass Roots – African Origins of an American Art

A new exhibition and several public programs at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College explore the impact of African coiled basket-making on aspects of economic development in the American South, as well as the present-day environmental and sociological threats to the communities who create this art form.

EUSA Sweet Grass Mix

A variety of African and American baskets from the exhibition Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art, 2007. Photo: E.G. Schempf.

Grass Roots – African Origins of an American Art, which was organized by the Museum of African Art in New York City, opens Jan. 28 and runs through March 16 in the Museum’s Main Gallery, with an opening reception Feb. 7 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and a lecture in the Museum’s lecture hall at 7 p.m. by Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Dr. Patrick Hurley. In another related public lecture on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m., Dr. Judith A. Carney, UCLA professor of geography, will consider the relationships between a historic culture of slavery and agro-economic practices in the South.

Grass Roots traces the histories of coiled basketry in Africa and America. Featuring baskets from the low country of South Carolina and Georgia as well as from diverse regions of Africa, the exhibition documents the production of coiled baskets from their use in the domestication of rice in Africa, through the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Carolina rice plantation, and to the present day.

This exhibition provides visitors with the opportunity to engage with diverse artifacts including baskets, basket-making tools and historic rice cultivation artifacts. It highlights the remarkable beauty of coiled basketry and shows how the market basket can be viewed simultaneously as a work of art, object of use, and container of memory. In this context, the humble but beautifully crafted coiled basket, made in Africa and the southern United States, becomes a vehicle for learning about creativity and artistry characteristic of Africans in America from the 17th century to the present.

Professor Hurley, who has published research on the land management that threatens communities’ access to the sweetgrass and the impacts on the cultural landscape, has planned the Feb. 7 program based on changes in landscape patterns, such as the distribution of agricultural fields and forests, and how resources are integrated into cultures.

Lavinia Nelson with her basket making supplies

Lavinia Nelson with her basket making supplies, 2006, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, color photograph, 10 ⅝ x 20 inches; courtesy Brian Crockett

On Feb. 21, in a talk sponsored by the Ursinus Arts & Lectures program and the Department of Environmental Studies, Dr. Judith A. Carney, will present “In the Shadow of Slavery: Peoples, Plants, and Agro-ecological Practices in the Americas” at 7 p.m. in Musser Auditorium in Pfahler Hall. Carney is the author of two critically acclaimed books: Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas (2001, Harvard University Press) and In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (2009, University of California Press). Her research examines the ways that the slave trade facilitated the movement of peoples, plants, and farming practices and technologies between Africa and diverse locations in the Americas. She is also an expert on the role of gender in food production and agricultural systems in West Africa and will speak about her research on the botanical and agricultural legacy of Africans in the Americas, tracing the ways that the movement of slaves and their practices facilitated the rise of new communities and landscapes.

The Berman Museum exhibition has been made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City in collaboration with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston, SC. It was co-curated by Chief Curator Enid Schildkrout, Museum for African Art, and curator and historian Dale Rosengarten, College of Charleston. The exhibition is toured by Mid-America Arts Alliance through NEH on the Road.

The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, known for its diverse collection and its innovative educational programming and outreach, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and noon to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The Museum is closed Mondays and college holidays, including March 30, Easter Sunday. The Museum is a member of the ARTZ/Artists for Alzheimer’s museum network, and is accessible to visitors with disabilities. Admission is free. The Museum is accredited by the American Association of Museums. Exhibitions and programs are funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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