Basketmakers weave a uniquely Lowcountry story

September 14, 2010 

Erik Stevens of Beaufort bends to get a closer look at a basket on display at the "Grass Roots, African Origins of an American Art" exhibition of African and American-made grass baskets at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn on Tuesday. Stevens had loaned the exhibition a sweetgrass basket he owns that was woven at the Penn Center in the early 1900s, and had come over to Hilton Head to see the completed exhibit.

JAY KARR

Nimble black hands have woven baskets from Lowcountry plants uninterrupted for 300 years.

What else in American culture has such longevity, asks Dale Rosengarten of Charleston, who has devoted a quarter century to documenting and preserving the art of sweetgrass basketmaking.

Rosengarten spoke Tuesday at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn about its first-ever traveling exhibit: "Grass Roots -- African Origins of an American Art." It runs through Jan. 7, 2011.

"The important thing to me is that we make this tradition important enough and respected enough for the children of today's basketmakers to want to do it," she said.

Rosengarten is co-curator of the exhibit and author of "Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Lowcountry."

She traced the lineage of the baskets from Africa and the rice-planting era in the Lowcountry, to the entrepreneurial roadside basket stands on U.S. 17 in Mount Pleasant, to the works by Mary Jackson that fetch five-figure sums from art collectors.

A larger show of this exhibit, organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City, is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

But Rosengarten said the exhibition on Hilton Head Island is like none other because people in Beaufort County answered the call from the museum for locally-made examples of the baskets.

Rosengarten was astonished to find works by Jannie Cohen and Caesar Johnson of Hilton Head, and one from the Penn School on St. Helena Island from almost a century ago, perhaps made by Alfred Graham.

Graham taught the craft to boys at Penn School, established in 1862 for freed slaves. That was a major factor in keeping the craft alive long after the rice plantations the slaves worked were gone.

Cohen is considered the last basketmaker on Hilton Head. She learned it from her father, who was born into slavery. She died in 2002, and Rosengarten said the baskets she created from bull rush in her trailer along U.S. 278 are widely considered works of art.

Johnson was born in the late 19th century, and his baskets sold on Hilton Head well into the 1950s.

Basketmaker Nakia Wigfall of Mount Pleasant helped explain the art she took up at her mother's feet at age 4.

"When you buy a basket," she said, "you're getting a living history. You're talking about a certain group of people passing that down from generation to generation, and today it is still part of the living history of the Lowcountry."

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