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VISUAL ARTS REVIEW: Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art

Clarity of Hindsight: Five centuries of African influence on Charleston art

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Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art
On view through Nov. 30
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
(843) 722-2706
www.gibbesmuseum.org

For the Gibbes Museum of Art, the past is never far behind.

Rather than shunning Charleston’s history as a major hub of the slave trade, the museum embraces controversy and shapes it into provocative exhibits.

Arriving on the heels of last spring’s Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art, an exhibit that used the landscape as a lens through which to examine the South’s distinct and peculiar institution, Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art, focuses on Africa’s impact on Charleston’s culture.

If the Gibbes is antiquated in its artistic substance, it is innovative in using well-known historical landmarks to more completely understand who we are and where we come from. Grass Roots offers the clarity of hindsight by exposing the complexities of the past and by providing a method through which contemporary viewers can see, feel, and comprehend how the past shapes our present-day lives.

Documenting nearly five centuries, Grass Roots tells the story of how millions of enslaved Africans augmented their experience with the artistry of their homeland.

Sculpture, video, photography, and paintings, as well as scores of handmade baskets assault your senses as you move through the exhibit. The work serves as a cultural bridge connecting Charleston’s African Americans to their African ancestors.

Visually sharp and well-edited videos follow local men and women as they tear sweetgrass from the ground and pack it into bushels. The basket makers discuss their processes and lead us through a basket’s tedious construction.

Photographs called stereoscope cards document farmers working on plantations. The photographs are richly preserved in a caramel light. The farmers work with baskets and shovels but also possess a level of stoicism that transcends their circumstances. Before books and magazines could readily reproduce photographs, these stereoscope cards were the primary source for people outside of plantation life to see southern slaves at work. Presented here, they are exquisite composites of the fledging days of photography. They also powerfully register the land and the people from centuries past.

The baskets on display are intricate and practical, dazzling and telling. As the videos explain, individual baskets can take weeks to complete. It’s during this period that personal artistry takes shape. Whether a basket is woven or coiled, made from sweetgrass or synthetic fabric, the finished product is a personal artistic achievement. They are a genealogical thread that stretches across generations and continents.

Baskets were used to celebrate marriage and births, to mourn deaths and ward off evil spirits. In fact, for each of life’s major influences — family, work, environment — baskets represent a small but significant moment in the broad scope of human experience.

Stirring black and white photographs taken in the 1970s by Greg Day help to bolster that. Day immersed himself in Charleston’s basket making community, hitching up with the people who sold their wares on Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant. His photos capture life outside of basket making. They show people dancing in juke joints, casting nets for shrimp, and the ghostly remains of abandoned plantations. The strength of Day’s work lies in his unfettered access to people in their place, without added drama or manipulation.

Set aside ample time for Grass Roots. The exhibition is an ambitious pastiche that can enlighten as well as overwhelm. The gallery is so crammed with artifacts, with crisscrossing alleys and dead-ends that the experience feels like you are wandering through an archeological office building. But if you investigate all that Grass Roots has to offer, you’ll be glad you did.

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