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Celebration mark's area's African roots
The Gathering at Geechee Kunda
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Herbert Dixon of Sapelo Island sits behind a display of the sweetgrass baskets that he weaves. - photo by Photo by Greg Kurth, A&G Productions
There was fun and laughter at the Geechee Kunda Gathering Saturday, but also serious expressions of tradition and respect for the past.
Dr. Jamal Toure, historian and a member of the Council of Elders of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, was master of ceremonies of the Gathering. He said of the Geechee Kunda center, “This is African ground.”
The Geechee/Gullah culture, he said, existed only within 30 miles of the coast in the Southeast. A common error, Toure said, is saying the former slave culture extends from Jacksonville, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla. Actually, he said, it includes the historic St. Augustine area south of Jacksonville, Fla.
The Gathering drew a wide variety of historians, conjurors, artists, singers, musicians, dancers and others interested in teaching — or learning about — the cultural development brought over from Africa with slaves imported to work on coastal plantations.
The Geechee Kunda Center itself stands on part of the former Retreat Plantation.
Jennie Kennedy of Hinesville brought a display of her dolls to the Gathering to show the historically accurate depictions of different African tribes and countries.
She began five years ago with traditional figures such as a Masai warrior with genuine cowhide shield. Now Kennedy has added dolls that represent current events.
“All my dolls are educational,” she said. Because oil is such a major world concern, Kennedy said she was interested that Africa has major reserves of oil.
She researched the subject and added a Nigerian minister of oil exploration doll to her collection.
Education and health workers are included among the historical tribal figures, as is a doll representing the president of Liberia.
Each of the 269 dolls Kennedy has made includes a written biography, placing the doll in its niche in African heritage.
Although the African traditional dolls are faceless, Kennedy said some young people, accustomed to more realism, did not relate to the lack of face. For them, she has made some dolls — angels, wedding dolls and others, with faces.
Kennedy said she has worked with sewing and crafts all her life, so the basics of doll making were not too difficult for her. “We first used soft drink bottles for the dolls’ bodies,” she said. “Now we use plastic water bottles.”
Kennedy strings thousands of tiny beads herself.
The dolls’ heads are stuffed with lint from the dryer. Some specialty items like the cowhide Masai shield must be ordered, but Kennedy uses fabric scraps, bits of ribbon, rocks, shells and natural materials on her dolls.
“A lot of things we just find on the golf course,” she said. She also frequents thrift shops.
While the doll collection blazed with shiny items and bright colors Saturday, the adjoining booth displays only muted shades of green and tan — the natural hues of sweetgrass.
There Herbert Dixon of Sapelo Island practices the traditional craft of weaving sweetgrass baskets. In Africa, and among slaves in America, baskets were utilitarian objects used to store, gather, cook or display everyday items.
Since those days, the baskets have become valued as art and can command high prices. Some are made to order.
Dixon said that the native sweetgrass grows in coastal wetlands where he harvests long strands of the grass and keeps them in water so they stay flexible.
Then he begins the bundling and coiling of the grass that forms the basket, tucking the strands into the string, yarn or plant fibers that hold them together.
A tool, traditionally a nail, is used to help press the sweetgrass into place. Dixon however uses a highly decorated silver object in place of a nail.
“It was a spoon I found when I was cleaning my yard,” he said.
The spoon felt right in his hand, so he removed the bowl of the spoon and shaped the handle into a basketry tool.
Originally baskets were usually large and frequently had tops. Now they are made in all shapes, styles and sizes. Dixon takes special orders for his baskets and can finish one within 30 days.
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