by Art + Dialogue intern Maddie Fritz
M: How has your style developed through the years and how did you, as an artist, arrive at the works that are featured in the show?
W: My works have evolved rather organically. I have always been a process driven artist where silent objects spoke to me, but my work and style evolved as I began creating works that celebrated who I am and where I come from and try to make sense out of my life. And that first exhibit, which ironically has been my most successful exhibit, was Juke Joint in 1995, that exhibit was about my father’s house, and traveling around the country. After that exhibit, I created other works that were confirming, but, what happened, my work began to evolve and I began to look at the world and how I would explore its social and cultural issues and that started in 1999. So I had a residency at the McCall Center and at that time I had been selected to have a residency at Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa, and that residency, the theme of the residency, was called baggage. And what happened in 1999 was the highly publicized case called the Diallo case it was a fifteen-year-old African immigrant who was shot by four NYC policemen and his name is Diallo. So I had the issue of gun violence on the brain as I went to South Africa, and at the time everyone had created work with that scene. I made limited edition prints that were about American baggage: America’s sense of self-righteousness, America’s sense of rights of entitlement, and how Americans use the Bible as a crutch to justify bigotry and hatred, as opposed to the 20th-century, so I used shopping bags as a metaphor for the American baggage, so that was kind of that catalyst that took me to create subtle works that had a powerful message so that they [viewers] couldn’t put it out of their heads and that got me into making social and political works.
M: Many artists draw on events that happened to them or during their lifetime. Do you use history as inspiration?
W: Yes, and that’s what art is about because artists in history have always responded to things that happened historically and that’s when you learn, that’s how so many people learn about history, through self-expression of artists.
M: How did you become an artist and are there specific life events that have impacted your work and/or contributed to your evolution as an artist?
W: Yes, there were three specific life events, one was in 1968, second was 1974, and the third one was 2008. I’ll start with 1968. I was born in rural NC, known as the sticks, but we called it Little Washington. In 1968, NC was thrust into desegregation. And my class, the class of 1968, was the test or guinea pig group used for desegregation. Now, I was one of the beneficiaries, I think I benefited from desegregation and that I kind of accelerated in that environment, however I was still totally affected by the harsh treatment; it was horrific.
The second thing that happened was in 1974, I had really close brushes with Civil Rights Protests, and Joan Little, I don’t know if you know about this case, Joan Little was my father’s cousin and she was tried with killing a jailer in Washington; she had stabbed him in self-defense because he had assaulted her sexually and this ignited a national civil rights protest. Then, I was too young to go to the protests in Washington, but what happened was, it was on national TV, and the reverend Ralph Abernathy of the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] came to lead the protests and I was about eight and my sister was 16 and she said, “Martin Luther King marched on Washington and we’re going to march on Little Washington!” and I had wanted to go so bad, but I’ve never forgotten the impact of the racial divide and what was going on around me. All this activity was right there on TV, Walter Cronkite was talking about this thing and everyone was marching.
And then, in 2008, you know, the 44th president of the United States was elected and he was black, I was like “Wow, this is so great and this is going to change the racial divide.” But, I was wrong. I was upset by the backlash, the rise of the Tea Party, the voter suppression, even in NC, and how the Congress and the Senate were behaving. I saw the rallies and the signs of hatred that were associated with Jesus and being touted by the tea baggers; signs saying things like, “We want to take our country, America, back!” and I was like “From whom?” and at what cost, I asked. I wanted to figure out what can I say, and it took me a while to figure out how to create something to express my disdain and my passions, so I actually wrote and received a grant from the Pollock Krasner Foundation in 2010 and that was when I started creating the work called ‘In the Hood.’ That was a labor of love. The first thing I created was the tea bagger gown composed of over a thousand tea bags that I had sewn together. I soon had health setbacks in 2013, I had kind of a life threatening illness and I couldn’t finish the works at that time.
Then in 2014, a new gallery wanted to feature my art and I had a successful continuation of funds to finish the exhibit. Part of this exhibit is this show, and it’s layered with satire and metaphor and the question I’m asking is “which hood?” What I love about what I tried to create is that I’m merging the Tea Party with popular hip hop and it’s this farcical parody and juxtaposition of this unlikely pair. The union of the KKK and the culture which they hate so much. It became a sort of metaphorical nightmare, pairing hip hop bling with the Tea Party and KKK iconography, I found that it just grabbed viewers’ attention.
Those were really the three pivotal events that got me to where I am now, because, like I said, I have to have art to deal with and express myself regarding the social dilemmas in America today.
M: The theme being racial tension in America, and the Art + Dialogue goal of uniting the arts and community in an exchange of ideas, do you have anything to say about connecting with the other featured artists?
W: I’m actually really happy to be presented in the same show with these other artists because I know much of the other artists are going to be much younger than me. And I’m really happy to see the youth going back to voice their opinions through social media and protesting and having something to say. What I would like to say, is really, do not forget the history of the struggle of this country, whether you’re black or white, or you’re gay or straight, or, you know, wherever you come from. But, also, find your unique voice, your unique gift, and share that with an audience. And that will do well with anybody that is a creative person. Once I started doing socio-political work, I haven’t stopped. And that’s always been a struggle, because I’ve always been trying to push the envelope. So when I see something that makes people feel uncomfortable, but expresses an idea in the most clever way, that’s what I really like. You know, how does it seduce the artist in either the most subtle way or the most over-the-top way. Which I notice a lot of younger artists are doing, and that’s what I really wanted to do with this work, you know, it’s so farcical, how hip hop is blended with the clan, so I hope that will garner some viewers’ attention.
Willie Little has work in collections around the globe and some of his pieces will be featured in the Art + Dialogue show in the Cowan Humanities Building at Greensboro College.
For more information on Willie Little and his work, please visit www.willielittle.com.