National Museum of African Art

Basket maker Mary Jackson among artists included in African Art Museum show

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Mary Jackson, a small, almost delicate woman with chin-length dark hair, walks through an exhibit of baskets -- some flat and traylike, some bowl-shaped, some lidded, even a basket meant to hold beer. Around her, the fragrance of sweetgrass and bulrush scents the air.

Coiled baskets such as these, Jackson is explaining, have been made by Africans and African Americans for hundreds of years. Traditional shapes started out as utilitarian objects used in the harsh work of slavery, became crafts sold by the side of the road and evolved into exquisite works of art.

Some of the most elegant examples here at the National Museum of African Art were woven by Jackson herself, and she quietly explains how this craft became the lifeblood of her family and the people around her.

"My grandmother would talk about how [basketmaking] was done on the plantation because it was brought from Africa. People kept the tradition because they wanted evidence of where they had come from," Jackson says as she walks among the 200 objects in the show, "Grass Roots: African Origins of an American Art." She's wearing black flats and loose, dark green pants and shirt. Her one nod to being part of the idiosyncratic art world is her blue-framed eyeglasses.

At home in South Carolina, there were also lessons in how important the basket weavers were to plantation owners: The slave families who made the work baskets for the plantation were kept together. As the skill was passed down, it became second nature to weave and sell. Both of Jackson's grandmothers sold vegetables and baskets at the Old City Market in downtown Charleston, and her mother sold baskets along Highway 17.

People who know sweetgrass know Jackson. She has exhibited her creations in international crafts shows, has been on national television and has even won a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called the "genius grant."

Every time the spotlight falls on her, Jackson says, it helps the whole basketry community.

"People recognize what I am doing," she says, in a soft, self-effacing way. "But this [exposure] brings recognition for the basketmakers they might not have received. My work is to encourage people to come to my community." Jackson lives and works in Johns Island just outside Charleston.

For the next five months the curious and the converted can go to the Smithsonian museum to see her creations, along with those of dozens of other named artists. The show covers 300 years of history, beginning with the need in Africa for a tool for rice cultivation.

The objects range from the 19th-century examples made by enslaved hands to the intricate work of today's artisans, such as Elizabeth Mazyck, Ida Jefferson and Mary Jane Manigault.

There are measuring cups, sewing baskets and teapots. There are ziggurat-like lids formed like staircases. Some baskets have little woven "feet" underneath. Reuben Ndwandwe, a South African, created coiled containers for holding beer.

The South Carolina baskets are usually a combination of light and deep beige, keeping to the traditional sweetgrass and bulrush. The contemporary African baskets are more colorful, using recycled materials such as telephone wire.

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