This week, Etsy announced a new installment of its Uplift Makers Program, an initiative that “serves to provide financial opportunities to historic artisan communities that often face economic hardships,” according to a blog post on the announcement. The program builds on community work led by nonprofit Nest, Souls Grown Deep, and Bloomberg Philanthropies, with quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama as well as the Gullah basket makers.” Now, in the continuing motif of bringing light and commercial support to the master artisans of niche Southern communities, the Uplift Makers Program will help present the work of Gullah-Geechee basket-makers who reside in the Lowcountry of Charleston, South Carolina, and the adjacent barrier islands.
The Gullah-Geechee people have roots going back to West Africa, where their ancestors were enslaved and brought to the US to plant rice. As one of the many adaptive techniques in response to this violent displacement, Gullah discovered the materials similar to those from their homeland, and used them to craft large fanner baskets to winnow rice (separating the chaff from the hull). Enslaved Gullah people managed to preserve and innovate the weaving techniques traditional to their culture, and their ancestors continue to make exquisitely woven and patterned baskets out of sweetgrass, pine needles, bulrush, and palmetto palm.
Due to the isolated nature of the coastal and island plantations, Gullah-Geechee culture developed in a unique way among the diaspora — complete with its own language, Gullah, which is a creole variant spoken only in this region. The National Park Service’s Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission now oversees the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, established by an act of Congress in 2006. The Corridor runs from Pender County North Carolina to St. Johns County, Florida.
The Uplift Makers program has moved to support contemporary Gullah basket-weavers as they continue this unique tradition that can be traced back over 10 generations. Featured participants include Gullah Weavers (Vera Manigault), whose baskets can also double as structural purses; Vanessa R Baskets (Vanessa Robinson), who has an extraordinary example of the “elephant ear” motif common in this practice; and CHS Sweetgrass (Andrea Cayetano Jefferson), whose shop includes woven earrings and palmetto crosses and other decorative items, in addition to baskets. These are just a few of more than a dozen basket-makers to be supported in this initiative.
For generations, the primary market for baskets was a stretch of Highway 17 known as “Sweetgrass Basket Makers Highway,” until 2010, when a Sweetgrass Pavilion was built to showcase the basket tradition. The baskets produced by some 250 to 300 Gullah-Geechee weavers keeping the tradition alive have attracted the attention of museums like the Smithsonian and collectors of all stripes.
“Through this program, Nest will provide business development and brand partnership expertise to leaders in the Gullah community,” states press materials for the program. “This effort will raise the profile of the Gullah within the American craft space — and encourage more ethical sourcing here and abroad — generating local, national, and international interest in this largely overlooked craft community despite the craft’s long history. In time, Nest hopes to leverage this increased awareness and interest to expand the weavers’ market access through online retail shops, as well as brand and retail partners.”
The previous initiative, featuring Gee’s Bend quilters, seems to have yielded positive outcomes, according to testimonials provided by some of the participants.
“It means a lot to me to have my own shop on Etsy,” said quiltmaker Caster Pettway in her testimonial. “It means a lot that people are buying my work and enjoying it. And I like all the followers I have — I never thought I would have followers! It surprised me that so many people would buy my quilts.” Another quilter, Claudia Pettway Charley, states that the program has helped her pay for her children’s college tuition and help the family with household expenses.
The potential for economic opportunity in this wave of the program extends beyond the shores of the United States. The initiative has formed a partnership with a Rwandan basket-weaving cooperative, Gahaya Links, formed in the wake of the Rwandan genocide. The collective collaborates with and employs women affected both economically and mentally by the violent upheaval as a pathway to national recovery. Working with Bloomberg Philanthropies, Nest connected the Gullah basket-weavers with the Rwandan basket-weaving community to collaborate and co-create a new “peace basket.” Their creation will be “a shared celebration of both of these artisans’ distinct techniques which are intricately tied to each of their communities’ histories,” according to Nest. One hopes that the success of the Gee’s Bend community initiative can be replicated and help support basket-weavers here at home and abroad in sharing their unique skills and vision.
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