More than a century ago, there weren’t any retailers for Pima Indian tribal members to obtain containers for daily use or for ceremonial purposes.
So, using plant materials, they wove their own elaborate baskets, as did the Apache, Yavapai, Navajo and other tribes.
To view some of the finest examples of basketry dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, as well as some contemporary pieces, head to the Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery in south Chandler.
The Eddie Basha Collection of Western American and American Indian Art encompasses more than 3,000 masterwork art pieces, of which approximately 500 are baskets.
The gallery displays approximately 300 baskets at any given time while other baskets and collection artworks are loaned and exhibited at various museums and cultural institutions across the country.
While the Eddie Basha collection is perhaps the largest privately-owned basket collection in Arizona, locally both the Huhugam Heritage Center and the Heard Museum have major basket collections.
Substantial collections also can be found at the Amerind Museum in Dragoon, the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center in Fort Apache.
The late Chandler entrepreneur Eddie Basha, Jr., whose family owns several grocery stores in Arizona, began collecting art as a hobby during the 1970s under the guidance of his Aunt Zelma. The hobby became a lifetime’s passion.
Basha, who passed away in 2013, had a discerning eye for art. He built the collection with purchases from artists directly, exhibitions, other collectors, dealers and galleries.
The baskets, however, were most often purchased from dealers and other collectors and not directly from tribal members.
Basha created a suitable environment to house, display and share the collection with the general public. The gallery, located within the Bashas’ Corporate Office, was renovated and extended a few times to yield its best use.
There are three defined areas within the gallery.
The first, adjacent to the lobby, houses the basket collection.
The second area is devoted to the Western American genre and it houses a vast composite of oil paintings, watercolors, acrylics, pastel and charcoal drawings, pen and inks, bronze, wood and natural stone sculptures. The majority of those pieces were completed by members of the Cowboy Artists of America.
The last area is devoted to American Indian masterworks including paintings, mixed media, pastels, pottery, fetishes, jewelry, sculptures and katsina.
A selection of instrumental music plays throughout the entire gallery space, creating a fitting atmosphere to view the collection.
“This is a beautiful collection of baskets and a truly remarkable one,” said Tammy Fontaine, director of the gallery. “Eddie and his wife, Nadine, had learned during the 1980s that many of the baskets were being sold on the international market.
“Jointly and from a preservation perspective, they embarked on acquiring baskets that were in great condition, had intricate patterns and design, and were primarily from tribal nations of the southwest, in particular, those from Arizona. Additionally, they were drawn to the organic nature of the materials used.”
There are a few examples of the “Man in the Maze,” which symbolicallydepictthe journey and the choices that confront us through “the maze” of life.
Apache and Yavapai baskets depict human figures as well as wildlife seen in the deserts and mountains – such as deer, mountain sheep, elk, coyote tracks and snakes.
Many of the Pima baskets have geometric designs. Some basket forms are like trays, while others are in the shape of ollas, or pots.
Ethnographic science studies art for insight into civilizations and cultures.
Fontaine shared another perspective of one of the baskets depicting camels, not a common sight in the Southwest. This is a result of the United States cavalry’s nineteenth-century experiment of bringing camels to the desert, which, it thought, would be a better option than horses.
“When that didn’t prove fruitful for them, they let the camels go. The (tribal) women would see the camels, and thusly wove them into their baskets and are now a permanent record of that part of Arizona’s history,” she said.
Basket construction consists of narrowly coiled materials such as cattail, bear grass, and yucca and stitched with willow splints.
Most were initially woven for utilitarian purposes: grain was stored inside them, ceremonial wine was served from them, games were played on them and stories were woven in them.
Though baskets were primarily woven by women, men often participated in the difficult work.
“Prior to accessibility to better tools and equipment and because the materials were so brittle, weavers would moisten them in their mouths in an effort to make them more pliable. Perilously, they would use their teeth to split the raw materials often having the effect of having one’s teeth grounded down and enduring split tongues, lips and fingers,” Fontaine said.
A photo of one of the weavers is displayed - portraying her with a few of the baskets contained in the collection.
The director, who is one of two Bashas’ members that care for the collection, optimally displayed the baskets in rooms without direct sunlight, a preservation effort.
They are displayed artistically as well.
On two walls, they are dramatically displayed in diagonal lines, symbolic of thunderbolts. On others, exhibited straight across, reminiscent of mesas. Another area shows a circle-of-life arrangement.
The value of the basket collection lies in its historical and cultural significance. At one time, basket weaving of this variety, intricacy and quality, almost became non-existent.
Younger generations weren’t attracted to the painstaking efforts of gathering and weaving the rough materials.
However, through recent Huhugam Heritage Center programming efforts on the Gila River Indian Reservation, a resurgence of interest in continuing the traditions of basket weaving that is promising though not without its challenges.
Center staff and weavers alike must cultivate and propagate the materials that once grew naturally. Education and curatorial staff continue their work in identifying and attributing baskets to specific early weavers as well as studying their patterns, techniques and cultural relevance.
While being stewards of the baskets and making them available for others to appreciate for as long as possible, the Basha family has another plan in the future.
“When the time is right, the family will contribute some of the baskets back to their own tribes,” Fontaine said.
- The Eddie Basha Collection of Western American and American Indian Art is at the Zelma Basha Salmeri Gallery, Bashas’ Corporate Office, 22402 S. Basha Road, Chandler. Entrance is free. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday. Details: 480-895-5230 or eddiebashacollection.com