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Sunday, December 26, 2010

On the Seen: The National Museum of African Art: Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art”

Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art”, 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 The exhibit presents a deep and telling story that demonstrates the enduring contribution of African people and culture to American life in the southeastern United States. “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 exhibit is organized by the Museum for African Art in New York, in cooperation with Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association, and features about 200 objects, including baskets made in Africa and the American South, African sculptures, paintings from the Charleston Renaissance, historic photography and videos. Grassroots reviews the history of the Carolina rice plantations and highlights technological innovations brought to American agriculture by people from Africa, tells the compelling story of the survival of African-American basketry over 300 years that clearly flows from very deep roots.

The first root that emerges from a seedling is called the taproot. It appears belowground before the seedling emerges above ground, is directly connected to the tree trunk it supports, and is the anchor of the plant. It is the largest, strongest root of the plant; in some cases, the taproot is as deep as the tree is tall; all of the other roots are its tributaries. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of troubling weeds like pokeberry, invasive vines, and shoots coming up from a tree that has been cut down—that tap root is still alive, and given time, it will emerge from the depths again.

Grassroots reveals the depth of the “taproot” from which Africans throughout the Diaspora drew upon in the New World, and brings the scholarship of Judith Carney’s landmark work, Black Rice (2001) to life, her research describes the African taproot that was the decisive factor in the rice cultivation that fueled the economic base of the tidewater south—Georgia, South an North Carolina in particular.

The notion that the culture of Africans was destroyed during the horror and trauma of the Middle Passage is one of the most enduring themes in American history and culture. On the one hand, apologists for slavery promulgated that belief that the minds and hearts of enslaved Africans were essentially a tabla rosa--a blank slate upon which the values and “civilizing” culture of the owners could be written upon it. On the other, planters were adamant in specifying particular ethnic groups from Africa for purchase. In sum, the Africans had no “culture” but the most sought after and valued Africans were the ones from rice producing regions. Along with the knowledge of rice horticulture and cultivation came the recreation of the material objects used in planting, raising, and harvesting the rice. Material objects used in agriculture and food production, the distribution labor, the rhythms, cycles, worldviews involved, and the way of life that revolves around the earth and the crop are the essential elements of “culture”.

It is critical that the African roots of agriculture and basketry be acknowledged, this aspect of culture was just one tributary off the tap- root. Africans also brought the remembrance of freedom, fighting and the place of the religion and spirituality in all spheres of life. It is possible to leave the exhibition with the impression that this is the only aspect of culture that survived the Atlantic. The landmark exhibition: the African Presence in Mexico spotlights Yanga, the African prince who lead a rebellion and established the all Black town of-----on the Atlantic Coast of Mexico. He was not the only warrior who arrived in the Americas.

Just as it is not true that Africans were so devastated that no recollection of the former life survived, it is also true that, while apologists might wish that “Sambo” and “Mammy” represented the African adaptation to slavery, the same individuals who were planting rice and weaving baskets were also in active resistance to enslavement and plotting rebellion.

In South Carolina, for example, incidents in 1730, 1738 and 1739 and 1740 were “especially troublesome for slaveholders, where “outbreaks” of rebellion and revolt occurred on an almost annual basis. These, and other, occurrences of outright battle and resistance contained forms that indicated strong African cultural origins, including dance, expertise in making poisons, herbal remedies, and African priests and conjurers who provided protection, prayers, and power that fueled and sustained resistance. All of these elements were of warfare in Africa—just as they remembered how to make baskets, they also remembered how to fight. In sum, not only was Africa a source of musical, agriculture and material culture, it was also fundamental in inspiring resistance and empowering a people perceived to be powerless, and formulating a new collective identity among transplanted Africans as African-Americans.

There are some who might say, yes, that may be true for South Carolina, but it did not happen anywhere else in North America. This camp concedes that there may have been “retentions” of African culture, but balks at the notion of an alternate frame of reference from the one imposed by slavery outside the Deep South.

Trial records of the 1741 conspiracy in New York City stated that “two “Cajoes”, three “Cufees”, three “Quacks”, a “Cuba” and a “Quamino”---all derivatives of Akan day names—were among the slaves implicated in the conspiracy; two others were listed as “Coromantee”, and Dr. Harry, a priest and healer, provided the powder used to start fires across the city, and lead all participants in an oath-binding ceremony that swore them to fealty to the cause of rebellion and freedom. (Walter C. Rucker, The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture and Identity Formation in Early America, 2006). The African burial grounds in New York City are filled with Akan symbols, at least ten different filing patters on the front teeth of skeletal remains. Burial #340 contained a clay pipe and 111 glass beads and cowrie shells around the waist of a woman---they “suggest that she belonged to an Akan speaking society where such are buried with their owner. (Rucker, 2206, pg. 50) Where there are material objects there is context in which they have meaning---the context was clearly African at its roots and flowering.

Finally, it is argued that worldview and ways of relating were eradiated by the birth of Africans born on this side of the Atlantic. With the birth of people who could be called African-Americans, one or two generations out, and certainly by the third, they would no longer exist. We can return to Grassroots, which shows how seagrass gathering, weaving and coiling skills are passed from generation to generation--- right up to the present, along with music, dance, song, modes of work and family living----and a desire, and willingness to fight for freedom, because the struggle is indeed fought on many fronts, and in many different modes.

This may be one of the reasons that the artistic expression and work of many African-American artists, including myself, even in abstract form, is indeed narrative, tells stories, presents an alternate, coexisting reality and perspective on life and art and history, or emphasizes distinct cultural and aesthetic themes. This means that the art, while adding beauty to life, also as a purpose and a role in the daily lives of the people for whom it is made, and who used as integral part of their daily lives.

By Anne Bouie

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