Keeping a Culture Alive, One Basket at a Time"We're trying to educate developers and others about these baskets so they're aware of the Gullah people and our traditions."
West Africans made baskets to help lighten the load of their agrarian culture. When those same Africans traversed the Atlantic Ocean to enter a life of slavery in coastal South Carolina, one of the few things they took with them was their basket-making tradition. On the rice plantations surrounding downtown Charleston, slaves used coil-sewn baskets of local bulrush and sweetgrass to winnow their masters' grains.
Those were Nakia Wigfall's ancestors, and she's very aware that as the descendant of slaves, and a member of the Gullah people, she is a piece of living history, not unlike the city of Charleston itself. As a traditional sweetgrass basket maker, she is also aware that she's the steward of one of the oldest crafts in America, one that migrated to the U.S. from Africa in the 17th century.
Wigfall, 52, learned how to make baskets as five generations of her family did before her. "I learned by sitting on the floor by my mother when I was 4 years old," she says. "I would pick up the pieces that fell from her lap and imitate her." Over time, Gullah basket making has evolved from a practical craft to an artisanal one, with basket makers like Wigfall seeking ever more innovative designs.
Mount Pleasant, which is something of a city within the city of Charleston, is where sweetgrass baskets originated in the U.S. and where Wigfall calls home. It remains the central destination for exploring this art, which has been designated the state craft of South Carolina. For many years, artists, including Wigfall's father, Henry, sold their baskets from improvised shelters along Highway 17. Now the baskets can be found in galleries, and the high prices they fetch correspond to the many hours they take to create.
Wigfall's Charleston is one centered around the rhythms of nature, as the basket-making technique she uses has not changed in centuries. You can still find her harvesting sweetgrass from the marshes near the city and gathering pine needles and palmetto leaves. What has changed is the local environment. Waterfront development and fertilizer use (which weakens sweetgrass) endangers the future of this ancient art form and has turned Wigfall into an advocate for the environment and her cultural heritage.
"We're trying to educate developers and others about these baskets so they're aware of the Gullah people and our traditions," she says. She also teaches children about them in the hope that another generation will value the baskets as something to both make and purchase.
At the annual Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival, Wigfall gets to set aside the fast-paced world and connect with other artisans and the history of their craft. "I don't see a sweetgrass basket as just a basket. It's about a whole heritage, a culture that's been handed down," she explains. "When I'm making a basket, I think about the heritage, about the two continents it represents and the generations of people that have passed on this art."
Check out Nakia's Charleston.