The South has always been home to a blend of cultures — from Native Americans here by 14,000 years ago to Europeans 500 years ago, followed by Africans forced to migrate. By 1500, cultures in the South included Creek, Cherokee, Catawba, Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Coushatta, from Europe English, Scottish, Irish, and German, and Africans from Senegal to Congo. Baskets were integral in daily life, as agricultural equipment for gathering, sifting, storing, and serving the finished product or as receptacles for tools, clothes, sacred objects, and even infants.
Initially each culture had its own preferred basket material and method of manufacture — twilled rivercane for Native Americans, plaited oak for Europeans, and coiled grasses for Africans. Interaction between groups spurred adaptations to changing circumstances, such as the use of white oak by the Cherokee in the 1800s, as rivercane stands were decimated by European settlements. Native Americans also adopted the European picnic, flower, egg, and market baskets to sell in the 20th-century art market. Native and European Americans wove honeysuckle into baskets after 1854, when introduced from Japan. By the 17th century African Americans discovered bulrush along the coasts, coiling it into large, round “fanners” to winnow rice. Later bulrush was one medium among sweetgrass, pine needles, and palmetto, giving rise to the name “sweetgrass baskets” along the coast.
Baskets were woven not only for use in the fields and homes or for sale in art galleries but also as a connection to ancestors and spirits, as designs were said to come from inside one’s head, from memories of one’s mother’s motifs, or from the Creator. Indeed, working with one’s hands in nature to gather materials and to form them into a basket was considered spiritually and physically healthy, becoming a part of the practice of occupational therapy around World War I.
Today, basketweavers in the South from all three traditions are teaching the next generation to continue this art. Artists from across the region work with old and new materials in old and new forms, innovating for their legacy, for art’s sake, and for political causes, as embodied in the varied vessels in this gallery and epitomized in the virtuosic miniature examples in the case at right.