Yokuts, basket, c. 1900. Plant fibers, wool. Gift of Vanessa Laird and Timothy Raylor, 2014.149.7

“Unexpected Turns” unravels the long history of American basketry

By Diane Richard //

Basket weaving gets a bad rap. Baskets are “decorative arts and functional objects,” says Nicole LaBouff, associate curator of textiles at Mia. “Because of that, they tend to be overlooked and downplayed as women’s work, or ‘craft.’”

The exhibition “Unexpected Turns: Women Artists and the Making of American Basket Weaving Traditions,” on view at Mia in gallery 281, aims to reveal the depth of history and artistry behind basket-making.

One of about a hundred miniature baskets collected by Kate Koon Bovey of Minnesota and donated to Mia in the 1940s. Made by a Tohono O’odham artist in the Southwestern United States.

What is a basket, even? “It’s something typically woven,” LaBouff answers. But that’s the only common feature. Some are made with plant fibers, others with wire or other materials. Some are functional, others sculptural. 

Asks LaBouff: “When you close a basket, is it a basket anymore?”

Indigenous basketry, moreover, contains multitudes. “The very idea of basketry in Native American communities transcends so many relationships,” says Jill Ahlberg Yohe, associate curator of Native American art, who organized the exhibition with LaBouff. “It involves ecological relationships, spiritual relationships, communal and family relationships to create something that seems simple. It’s incredibly complicated.”

The exhibition features a range of examples: miniature souvenir baskets made by Tohono O’odham (Papago) and Akimel O’odham (Pima) artists in the 1900s; an Anishinaabe basket made of porcupine quills, birchbark, and sweetgrass; a contemporary sculptural piece by Mary Giles that challenges even the broadest definition of a basket. All of them reveal incredible skill.

“Baskets are so unforgiving, you cannot make a mistake,” Ahlberg Yohe says. “It requires a lot of thinking, improvisation, and planning. It requires great intelligence and inventiveness and a deep understanding of the materials you’re using.”

One basket, by Gail Tremblay (Mi’kmaq and Onondaga), uses vintage 16mm film featuring stereotypical images of Netsilik Inuit to comment on climate change. 

“That’s radical,” Ahlberg Yohe says.