One of the reasons I love handcrafted products is that they tell a story. The hands that make each piece leave a little bit of themselves with their creation, which explains how we can feel so connected to people and places we’ve never met or been to through things. Handcrafted products also tell a story about culture, history, and values. When I’m in Africa, I am so taken by the beautiful Maasai jewelry, the basketry, the textiles...I am curious about everything I see in the markets. So as Black History Month approached, I couldn’t help but wonder about the role of traditional African craft in African American history.
I want to share about three forms of craft that have been reborn and reinvented by African Americans - first by slaves or men and women born free during the colonial era and now by Black Americans carrying on a beautiful legacy.
The longstanding African tradition of basket weaving has been kept alive by the Gullah people of South Carolina. The Gullah have a very interesting history themselves. One you can learn more about in a short video here.
For the sake of this article, I want to focus on their basket weaving tradition. In many parts of Africa, sisal, raffia, papyrus, star grass, and more are used to weave baskets for an array of purposes like harvesting and collecting crops. As you’ll see, much of African craft is made for function first and the beauty of it works in tandem. In the 17th century, slaves in the Carolinas and Florida brought this technique from Sierra Leone with them. They used a special kind of grass called bulrush to coil sturdy, intricate baskets called fanners, which were used to separate the chaff from the rice. Other shapes and types of baskets were made to harvest fruits and vegetables, shellfish, and cotton on plantations as well.
A sweetgrass rice fanner
As time went on, artists began using other grasses, most notably, sweet grass, which is more flexible, allowing for more intricate design. The skill has been passed down from generation to generation, and now artists who make them are mostly located in South Carolina. The weave on these baskets is so intricate and interlocked that they are water-tight. Unlike the cheap versions of basketry we may find in mainstream retailers that are often made in factories in Asia, this type of craftsmanship takes a tremendous amount of skill and time.
To shop current-day sweet grass baskets, check out this site, where you can find the artistry of two 7th generation weavers.
While pottery practices can be tied to a number of different cultures, it has a profound place in African heritage. One of the most famous types of ceramics created by African Americans was first found in the mid 1800s. The distinctive face vessel is rooted in popular West African culture whose people subscribe to the idea that the head house’s a person’s soul. These face jugs were said to be used as grave markers to ward evil spirits off. Since slaves were denied the right to a gravestone, this would have been a way to honor the deceased as well. Unfortunately, because the original makers of these vessels were slaves, many of the artists and their origins remain unknown.
As time went on, white potters adapted this art form as well, creating their own versions of face jugs and by the 1920s, they were even used to store alcohol. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the popularity of face jugs surged when two potters, Lanier Meaders’ and Burlon Craig’s work garnered attention. Their pieces are now displayed in the Smithsonian.
Today, artists like Ben Watford, continue keeping this tradition alive. Click on the photo to watch a short video on his work.
Quilting and Textiles
Most of us learned about quilting in reference to the role it played in the Underground Railroad and you may have also heard of the quilts that tell a story or a family history. Quilts could serve as family albums, to record momentous occasions. This quilt by Harriet Powers below was believed to be a series of Bible stories, possibly used to teach children.
Although quilting was also largely a Euro-American tradition, American slaves brought their culture with them and put their own spin on this tradition, making string, or strip patterned quilts a vital part of African-American folk art. Rather than utilizing the traditional block prints, many made quilts from strips of fabric sewn together, an innovation that has contributed to the mosaic aesthetic we know now. As with much of traditional African craft, like basket weaving, function was first and foremost. Quilts were made out necessity from scraps of fabric to keep their families warm, but are now appreciated for their innovative design. The sewing of long strips, often creating asymmetrical shapes, resembled the strip weaving often done by West African men. Likewise, many quilts made by African Americans in the colonial era also referenced the traditional geometric patterns and shapes found in West African textiles.
There is a small community in Gee's Bend, Alabama who has continued making quilts in this same way. Some of their work has been preserved by the Smithsonian.
Today, the tradition of quilting remains a way to tell stories and connect to cultural heritage. Currently the Art Institute of Chicago is displaying Bisa Butler’s incredible work. As you’ll see in her story here, she learned to sew from her mother and grandmother, and it was when she made a quilt for her grandmother on her deathbed that the medium truly became hers.
One of the things I love about folk art and much of craft is the combination of function and artistry. Baskets, pottery, and quilts all had very real and necessary functions, but the handcrafted nature of these pieces is what makes them works of art. Keeping cultural heritage alive through craft is so important. I think it’s the same reason children often take over the family business (whatever that may be) or continue to make recipes that have been passed down. Whatever we learn from our parents and grandparents keep us connected to our loved ones, our history...to ourselves.