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Culture Briefs
Number 1 · Fall 2013

The Gullah Art Form of Basketmaking

RENEE THOMAS

Background

Sweetgrass baskets have a rich history and tradition. Sweetgrass basketsewing in America can be traced back over 400 years. Sweetgrass baskets are made from sweetgrass palmetto leaves and/or pine needles. It is one of the oldest art forms of African origin in the United States. Sweetgrass baskets were originally crafted by the Gullah people for the practical purpose in the cultivation process of rice and cotton on plantation fields. Over the centuries, the baskets changed from a practical plantation tool to a fine art object that represents a rich heritage and meticulous skill.

Rice was one of South Carolina’s major crops and exports originally men constructed the larger baskets made out of marsh grasses for agricultural use. These coiled baskets were utilized to “fan” the rice, which separated the grain from the chaff. The women made smaller everyday baskets for household use. These baskets were typically coiled and sewn together instead of the time weaving technique. Basketsewing is a difficult and time consuming craft that takes patience and skill.

After the Civil War, sweetgrass baskets began to evolve from agricultural implements to household items. As agricultural use declined, the basketsewing was kept alive largely through efforts in the Penn School on St. Helena Island. The Penn School promoted basketmaking as a way for sea islanders to earn income while preserving an element of their heritage.

The Sweetgrass basket is a nationally recognized art form with examples in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. The Purdue Black Cultural Center also has sweetgrass baskets in their art collection. Today there is a growing threat to basketmaking due to the commercial development of the land on the sea islands.

Fanning

After the rice seed was harvested, it had to be milled before it could be eaten. England Americans first pounded the seed with mortar and pestile, then placed it in wide flat coiled fanner baskets. Fanning involved tossing the rice gently into the air to allow the wind to blow away the chaff. Afterward, the grain was ready to cook.


References

Raven, M. T. (2004). Circle unbroken: The story of a basket and its people. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rosengarten, D. (1986). Row upon row: Sea grass baskets of the South Carolina low country. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina.

Vlach, J.M. (1978). The Afro-American tradition in decorative arts. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art.