Putting Baskets to Work in Southwest China


Anyone visiting the towns and villages of Southwest China will find a great variety of baskets being used—and made—as tools of practical, and sometimes arduous, work. These durable baskets, often made of bamboo, are sometimes made for personal use by members of the household while at other times they are created by people who make at least part of their living weaving and selling baskets. Some Chinese work baskets serve specific purposes such as carrying a particular tool or catching a certain species of fish. Other, more common types, are used in a general way. For instance, the same form of basketry scoop can be used by a grocer to move rice or by a construction worker to transport gravel. While handmade Chinese baskets remain common instruments of work in China’s rural Southwest, today they are used alongside industrially produced containers and tools. Sometimes these mass-produced tools take their shape from, or even imitate, older basketry forms. The development of basket skeuomorphs—such as the molded plastic laundry “baskets” in many North American homes, like the plastic “basketry” scoops found now in Southwest China reflects the changing story of both basketry and labor in China and worldwide.
The Sam Noble Museum, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, has just opened Putting Baskets to Work in Southwest China, an exhibition that we initially co-curated for the Mathers Museum of World Cultures in 2015. It arises from fieldwork and collecting that we have pursued with Chinese and American museum colleagues since 2013. The baskets featured in the show are artfully made and visually striking, especially to those who—not having lived in the region from which they come—do not take them for granted as familiar objects of everyday life and work. But our focus in the exhibition is not primarily aesthetic. Our aim is to evoke the remarkable diversity of forms and practical uses to which bamboo basketry continues to be put in this region.
Presenting twenty-nine baskets collected in rural communities in upland areas of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Guangxi China, the exhibition also includes extensive, large-format documentary photographs placing the region’s baskets into the contexts of their manufacture, circulation, and use as tools of labor. Made mostly of bamboo, forms presented include a fish trap, a bird trap, a poultry cage, a lunchbox, a ceremonial sticky rice container, sewing baskets, a cricket cage, an impressive basketry bassinet, and scoops, sifters, and utility baskets in a variety of forms. While primarily made of bamboo, the exhibition also tracks the incorporation of industrial materials such as plastic packing strap and manufactured cloth webbing into the region’s repertoire of handmade baskets. Some baskets were collected from named makers, but others were collected, as such baskets often circulate in this region, anonymously. We hope that anyone with an interest in basketry or rural life and work will find value in the exhibition. In contrast to Native North America, where work baskets preserve the form of older work baskets but would not today be used as tools of labor, in this part of China baskets are not thought of first and foremost as works of art or heritage. As yet, they remain tools for the accomplishment of daily or seasonal tasks. They represent old and elegant solutions to a wide range of practical problems and we think that they are worthy of more attention than scholars, collectors, and even their makers and users have given them.
Presented by the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma Putting Baskets to Work in Southwest China opened June 9 and runs through August 12, 2018.  For more information and museum hours please visit http://samnoblemuseum.ou.edu/