New McKissick exhibition shows off artistry of sweetgrass basketmaking

Basketmakers have sewn baskets in the South Carolina Lowcountry since the 17th century.

Four Corners of Justice by Georgette Wright Sanders. Provided photo. Click image to enlarge.

The tradition has been preserved at the hands of the Gullah-Geechee people, descendants of enslaved West Africans trafficked to North America. For over 300 years, basketmakers have transformed baskets from a plantation tool into an art form.

Today, basketmakers continue to leverage heritage tourism to make a living, to advocate for the preservation of the ecosystem vital to the tradition, and to experiment with scale, form, and materials. Sewn Through Time: Sweetgrass Basketmakers Reimagine a Tradition traces the evolution of sweetgrass baskets in South Carolina, highlighting the innovative work of contemporary makers.

The lens brought to the baskets in this exhibit by Guest Curator Kennedy Bennett is that of an insider to the basketmaking community. A recent Yale graduate, Bennett explains

Growing up in Mount Pleasant as the daughter and granddaughter of basketmakers, I was enveloped in a community that kept Gullah-Geechee traditions alive. My grandmother, Thelma Bennett, other family members, and neighbors sewed sweetgrass baskets on their porch, at their basket stand, and at local businesses appealing to tourists. I am fortunate to have immersed myself in Gullah-Geechee culture—first as a descendant, and now in academic and curatorial contexts. 

Among the makers whose work will be featured are Antwon Ford, Georgette Wright Sanders, and Adell Swinton. Ford draws inspiration from gestalt psychology and the idea of a 4th dimension to conjure sculptural forms that represent “grass in motion.” With vessels like Four Corners of Justice that invoke both South Carolina’s sweetgrass basket and 19th century face vessel traditions, Sanders redeems the past to envision a better future. Swinton’s miniature versions of classic basket forms like the ring tray and purse with lid demonstrate technical virtuosity in the service of memorializing the imaginative reservoir and entrepreneurial spirit of past makers.

The opening reception for Sewn Through Time will be Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, 5:30-7 p.m. It is free and open to the public. Visitors are invited to meet Bennett as she shares how she came to study and write about sweetgrass baskets.

Front page image: Basket by Antwon Ford. Click here to view enlarged.

McKissick Museum and the SCAC are partners for the agency’s Folklife & Traditional Arts program.

Sewn Through Time: Sweetgrass Basketmakers Reimagine a Tradition is open from Aug. 11 to Dec. 10, 2022 at McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina (816 Bull St., Columbia, at the east end of the historic Horseshoe). Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Free.