Traveling Basketry Exhibition to Open in Columbia
Basket weaving, or simply basketry, is one of the most ubiquitous and oldest forms of craft making in human civilization, with some of the oldest known baskets dating back nearly 12,000 years. Early basket makers used materials close at hand, such as grass, wood, even animal remains—which decay over time without proper preservation—so much of the early history of the craft has been lost. The craft itself, however, has survived and evolved over time, from simple, utilitarian baskets made for carrying food, water, and other necessities to the abstract, sculptural artistry of contemporary basketry. The long history of basketry in America is the subject of a new exhibition opening Jan. 28 at the University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology.
Seeds Are Planted
The idea for a major exhibition exploring the history of basketry in America originated during a conversation between Jo Stealey, chair of the MU art department, and her friend Louis Russell, who, at the time, was president of the National Basketry Organization (NBO). Stealey, then the chair of the NBO’s exhibitions committee, says they were discussing what types of exhibitions had not been done previously when they realized no one had put together an exhibit telling the entire history of American basketry.
That conversation occurred about four years ago, and Stealey says her life has been consumed with the project ever since. “I had no idea this project was going to take over my life, and no idea I would become department chair during that time, too,” Stealey says. As a fiber artist, she likes to spend 20–30 hours each week in her studio creating but has been unable to do that for the past year and a half as she and her team put the finishing touches on the exhibition. Although Stealey and Russell were the instigators, Stealey says the exhibition could not have happened without the enthusiastic support and assistance of Museum of Art and Archaeology Director Alex Barker, Associate Professor of Art History Kristin Schwain, and more than 90 MU undergraduate and graduate students.
More than an Exhibition
Stealey says when she and Schwain initially discussed the project, they decided to develop plans to use it as the basis for three graduate-level museum-studies courses that combined theory and practice.
“We’ve had people from art history, art education, the visual arts, anthropology, museum studies, even people from parks and recreation who took some of our classes because we are using this exhibition as a real-life experience that students can work on and learn how to go about putting on an exhibition,” she says. “How you develop education materials, how you curate a show, how you write about objects in the show, how you contextualize them—it provides a gamut of opportunities that students don’t regularly have. I think this exhibition is what it is because of the vision the students brought to this, in addition to what Kristen and I were thinking.”
Five by Five
Stealey says the exhibition, Rooted, Revived, Reinvented: Basketry in America is divided into five sections. The first section, “Cultural Origins,” features early-American basketry that highlights local environments and cultural traditions. Included in this section are a 19th-century Tlingit trinket basket, an African Gullah lunch basket, and lidded double-weave Cherokee baskets. The next section focuses on the “New Basketry” movement of the 1960s that incorporates the feminist movement’s embrace of traditional crafts as art, the hand-made crafts of the back-to-the-land movement, and the renewed interest in all craft media that took root during this period. Stealey says the most influential member of this cohort was Ed Rossbach, a textile educator at the University of California-Berkeley in the ’60s.
“Rossbach brought forth this whole idea of utilizing your local environment and your local culture and integrating that to create work that really spoke to what was going on at that moment in time, and he also was exploring basketry as sculpture,” Stealey says.
Other artists began exploring the concept of basketry as sculpture, which leads to another section of the exhibit, “Baskets as Vessels.”
“These artists are exploring a wide range of materials and using traditional techniques while maintaining the vessel form, but it has lost its notion as a functional object,” she says. “It’s aestheticizing the idea of ‘vessel’ and the meanings that vessels have in our lives as a sculptural form.”
The section on “Living Traditions” features artists from the 20th and 21st centuries whose baskets both perpetuate and transform the historical traditions in which they work. Stealey says while these baskets hew to their historical antecedents and remain functional, they also reflect the personal styles of the artists. Finally, “Beyond the Basket” highlights basketry’s new place within sculpture, textile, and installation art. Stealey says some of the works in this section will challenge the viewer’s perception of what a basket is.
The Road Show
The Museum of Art and Archaeology will host the basketry exhibition from Jan. 28 to May 14 following the opening reception at the museum on Jan. 27. A number of activities are planned the following day, including a one-day symposium, a gallery walk, and a basket-bombing event which will give visitors a chance to weave on a community basket structure. A touch monitor will allow viewers to touch a state and see all of the participating artists from that state, and a timeline will display historical events occurring at the time the baskets were produced. Stealey says after its run at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, the Rooted, Revived, Reinvented exhibition will travel throughout the United States through 2019.