Tribal baskets

Fluid shapes and geometric patterns transform 19th and early-20th century African and Native American basketry into works of art

Burundi igiseke, 20th century, The Textile Museum
Burundi igiseke, 20th century, The Textile Museum | Image: Don Tuttle

Once, carved ceremonial masks, dynamic forms made with ancient skills passed from father to son, were at the top of every ethnographic art collector’s wish list. Recently, however, connoisseurs have been discovering the quieter grace of early-20th-century basketry, enthralling combinations of fluid shape and geometric pattern, woven by the womenfolk. Don’t expect women’s work to be undervalued in this field, though: the best of these elegant artefacts can sell for more than $1m.

Tutsi tribal baskets, made from coiled and woven plant fibres from the Great Lakes area of east central Africa, have a stately presence that contrasts with their modest materials. “They occupy the point where weaving turns into sculpture,” says specialist dealer Clive Loveless, indicating his own collection of a dozen baskets, from 10cm to 70cm high, woven from papyrus, sorghum and raffia, with distinctive pointed lids. “They were made as prestige pieces, either as gifts or to keep as symbols of family and standing. Some rare examples, no bigger than a thumb, held jewels.” The baskets, delicately patterned with zigzags or stepped wing motifs, were made by high-ranking women with time for painstaking work. Although 19th-century examples survive, “Most of the collectable ones that come up for sale are 1920s and 1930s,” he says.

Louisa Keyser basket, 1902, sold for $110,500 in June
Louisa Keyser basket, 1902, sold for $110,500 in June

Prices are still relatively reasonable, starting in the mid-hundreds, to over £4,000, depending on age, quality and intricacy of the motifs. But those considering dipping a toe into Tutsi basketry should beware: enthusiasts agree it is impossible to buy just one. “I’ve been collecting for more than 10 years and own about 100,” says Klaus Mutschler, a financial services entrepreneur. “There’s a playful joy to the basketry designs. They’ve got this personal touch. Whoever visits my house is drawn to them; the connection is immediate. I feel I can develop a relationship with the objects without taking a degree.”

Increasingly, people are keen to pursue similar relationships, thanks to this year’s blockbuster show at The Textile Museum in Washington, DC. Weaving Abstraction featured basketry from the lower Congo and Angola, north-western Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, north-western Tanzania and southern Uganda, as well as the “high status” basketry of Rwanda and Burundi that Loveless and Mutschler so admire. Exhibits included not just the small containers with pointed lids (agaseke and igiseke), but also shallow bowls and platters (inkoko) and winnowing baskets and roundels (agakoko and inkoko).

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Collector Bill Simmons has acquired some of these tiny roundels (10cm to 13cm in diameter), which were used as presentation trays. Formerly managing director at New York firm Ark Asset Management, he says: “The trays are little jewels. The finesse of the weaving is amazing. I haven’t seen basketry that fine.”

Meanwhile, in North America, equally beautiful but different basketry was being made by women who can only be described as celebrity weavers. A must-see exhibition of this work, at Arizona State Museum (Basketry Treasured, until June 1, 2013), showcases part of a huge collection – the largest, a Western Apache olla, from 1900, is 100cm tall.

 Carrie Bethel basket, 1930s, sold for $875,000 in 2005
Carrie Bethel basket, 1930s, sold for $875,000 in 2005 | Image: Ari M. Maslow

Sandra Horn has been a specialist dealer in this field since the 1970s: “I grew up in central California, where a lot of baskets were produced. I started as a collector but now I build portfolios for people, as you would with stocks, only with baskets.” Her clients might be after depth in a certain area, or completing a collection. In greatest demand are baskets by the Mono Lake Paiute weaver Carrie Bethel, who worked in the early 1900s, and Louisa Keyser, known as Dat-So-La-Lee, of the Washoe tribe, whose baskets date from the late 1800s. Horn has sold baskets by Bethel for more than $1m.

How can she explain such prices for domestic objects? “The women that made them had to be botanists to get the materials, they had to keep those patterns in their heads, and they had to have dexterity to make these beautiful objects. Some could take years to weave,” she says.

Western Apache olla, 1900, Arizona State Museum
Western Apache olla, 1900, Arizona State Museum | Image: Jannelle Weakly, courtesy Arizona State Museum

And, Horn adds, the best Native American makers were producing baskets as artworks. “At first they were using them for cooking and eating, but it turned into an art form when they found that the white people liked them. During the Depression, an industrialist called James Schwabacker supported ‘Indian Field Days’ in Yosemite Valley, California, where the ladies would compete against each other.” Bethel’s work was prized in her lifetime by prominent figures, including William Randolph Hearst, and continues to appeal to today’s arts philanthropists.

These gems surface infrequently; last year only a couple sold at auction – just enough to confirm that prices are still buoyant. At Bonhams San Francisco, the top lot from the Robert Bayuk collection was a globular basket (degikup) made by Dat-So-La-Lee in 1902. According to the specialist in charge, Jim Haas: “It’s large, fine, meticulously made and gorgeous.” The basket fetched $110,500.

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