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Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art Premiering at the Gibbes Museum of Art on August 29, 2008

Traveling Exhibition Organized by the Museum for African Art Illuminates the Ancient Art of Basket Making

(June 2, 2008 - Charleston, South Carolina) Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art opens on August 29, 2008 at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina and runs through November 30, 2008. The exhibition was organized by the Museum for African Art, New York, in cooperation with the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.

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 two hundred 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 three hundred years. “We are honored to serve as the opening venue for this historic exhibition on behalf of the Museum for African Art. Grass Roots speaks to the unique heritage of the Lowcountry region and expands our knowledge of an art form that is rooted in our own community,” noted Gibbes Executive Director Angela D. Mack.

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.

“It is thrilling to be able to tell this story through the coiled basketry traditions that forever link the two continents,” said Elsie McCabe, President of the Museum for African Art. “This 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 come to be appreciated as an object of art.”

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.

Grass Roots is supported by funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Getty Foundation (for the exhibition publication), the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and the MetLife Foundation. Additional funding for video components of the exhibition and a 30-minute documentary film has been provided by The Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation, the South Carolina Humanities Council and the South Carolina Arts Commission. Additional support for the Gibbes is provided by the volunteer organization Gibbes, etc, Wachovia Bank and media sponsor Charleston Gateway magazine.

Grass Roots was designated in 2005 as a “We the People/America’s Historic Places” project by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This designation recognizes projects that capture “the evocative power of historic places to address themes and issues central to American history and culture.”

The Museum for African Art is one of the premier institutions in the United States devoted to exhibiting traditional and contemporary African art. On September 24, 2007, the Museum broke ground for a new permanent museum building designed by Robert A. M. Stern, Dean of the Yale University School of Architecture, on Manhattan’s Museum Mile at Fifth Avenue between 109th and 110th Street. The Museum’s administrative offices, educational facility and gift shop are temporarily located in Long Island City. Exhibitions are currently presented at off-site locations in New York City and tour nationally and internationally. Grass Roots will be an inaugural exhibition at the Museum for African Art’s new building in New York City when the museum opens in 2010. For further information about the Museum and its exhibits, see or call (718) 784-7700.

Established as the Carolina Art Association in 1858, the Gibbes Museum of Art opened its doors to the public in 1905 in historic Charleston, S.C. The Gibbes houses one of the foremost collections of American Art from the 18th century to the present. The Gibbes is currently undergoing major renovations and will reopen in the spring of 2016. The renovated museum will properly showcase its extensive collections and will feature an admission-free ground floor, providing a place to watch artists at work in studios and stroll through a world-class garden.

135 Meeting Street | Charleston, SC | 29401