Monday, June 29, 2009

Grass Roots: Preserving Community through Art

If you haven’t been to Fellows Riverside Gardens lately, and even if you have, a visiting exhibit there should provide a great reason to make a special trip. Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art tells the history and showcases the artistic beauty of the sweetgrass baskets of the Carolina low country. The exhibit links the artistry of today’s basketmakers with their African origins and the continuing tradition of basketmaking in Africa.

Beyond the aesthetic beauty of the baskets themselves, what I found most intriguing in my conversations with basketmaker Nakia Wigfall and exhibit curator Dale Rosengarten was the way the local community of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, took control of what might once have been seen as a symbol of enslavement and transformed it into a tool for economic and cultural independence and pride. As Nakia mentions in our interview, her great-grandparents were among the enslaved people who once labored on rice plantations in the area, and for the, the flat, wide fanner baskets they made each year were necessary tools. But as Dale explains, by the early 20th century, the basketmakers of Mt. Pleasant began to sell their work along the roadside near Charleston, ensuring that they could preserve their artistic freedom and protect their economic interests.

At the same time, as Nakia makes clear, basketmaking weaves not only practical, beautiful objects. It also weaves together the family and community. She learned to sew these baskets from her mother, and she has taught her own children. Basketmaking allows families like Nakia’s to strengthen their ties through shared art, but because they can earn a living through this work, it also allows them to remain in their home community – a community with roots dating back to before the Civil War.

Grass Roots also has something to offer our community. The exhibit is part of an effort by Mill Creek Park to expand its outreach, especially to the African-American community. As John Russo and I noted in Steeltown USA, the park has long served as a dividing line between the mostly white West Side and the mostly African-American neighborhoods that border the park along Glenwood Avenue. Decades ago, black people were only allowed into Idora Park one day a week, and the amusement park was later a site of some fights between white and black youth. Racial divisions remain strong in this community, but Mill Creek MetroParks is trying to help change that. I hope this exhibit will draw African-American visitors to Fellows, but I also hope it will give white visitors a different perspective on African-American culture.