And It’s Deep Too!
an essay by Bill Gaskins
In the work of Willie Little, the viewer, listener, and participant of his environments, paintings, and assemblages, has been presented with a wide range of experiences, observations, and insights from this skilled, spirit-driven artist, storyteller, editorialist, and native son of the American south.
In his seminal and critically celebrated installation titled Juke Joint, Little literally staged scenes from his rural past in meticulous detail, complete with diverse and complex characters embellished by a sound environment. In the process, Willie Little also reactivates aged, “distressed” and discarded objects of southern material culture that have literally come to him through the grace of ancestral prop masters whenever he’s needed them for his productions. Additionally, music and regionally-specific spoken words and patois play a significant role in Little’s process of memory and autobiography.
In fact, I believe that somewhere in Little’s studio, there is an AM radio that regularly transports him to the late 1960s to station WROQ in Williamston, North Carolina where disc jockey Little Willie (no relation) and his SOUL Patrol" still plays the music of Motown, Percy Sledge, Betty Wright, Millie Jackson, Candi Staton and James Brown. On this ultimate oldies station, Little can still hear the commercials for Johnson’s Blow Out Hair Care Kit, Carolina Rice, Ambi Fade Cream, and local Black-owned businesses like faith healers and advisors Madam Rose and Madame Lorraine, Phillip Brothers Mortuary, and Greenville’s legendary Bump House Night, when Black consumer dollars regularly passed through the hands of Black businesses like Little’s Grocery. Through the content of these re-created environments, the stigmata and “curse” of black skin, kinky hair, and being rural, hardworking, hard drinking, life-loving, earth-moving, planting, harvesting people of African descent are invalidated. Through Little’s work “those people” become affirmed, embraced and lifted from the profane to the sacred, and acknowledged as essential members of a shared single humanity.
In In Mixed Company, Little’s approach is formally more minimal, yet more layered in concept, craft, and critical concerns. In this work, the possibilities for meaning and the demands on the viewer increase as Little draws upon the roots of minstrelsy, racial mythology, social Darwinism, sound, music, theatre, satire, and his trademark humor. In Mixed Company is a deceptive nest of complexity and contradiction that reveal another side of the artist who’s aforementioned works are much more theatrical.
However, the formal elements of this installation provide a background to the foreground that is the sound environment of the piece. In Mixed Company is rooted in the content of private conversations between people who remain imprisoned by 19th century notions of superior whiteness and inferior Blackness in the 21st century. As Little states, “The visitor has the opportunity to eavesdrop on “privileged conversations” that may have transpired in the “front room,” dining room, between friends and even on schoolyards.”
The true brilliance of In Mixed Company lies in its irony. As the many recent public statements made by celebrity figures over the last year reminds us, the social codes of civility, discretion, and shame that In Mixed Company seeks to recall and represent are woefully absent from too many public and private relations across lines of race.
From the minds and through the mouths of comedians, entertainers, radio commentators, and even a Nobel Prize winner, we have heard expressions, opinions, and analysis (at times using the most racially offensive word of the American English language), that would, in another time, be associated with people characterized as racial extremists. As if recovering from an out-of-body experience, these people in their public statements of apology often stress their love and respect for African American people and our contributions (like music), cite Black friends, and how in private they know better and do better and have no idea why they said such horrible things in public. Concurrently we have the phenomenon of young black men and women in the entertainment industry (and on the streets) gratuitously broadcasting the very same word with digitalized percussion and rhythm in the name of art, commerce, resistance, and—freedom.
It is this perfect storm of our complex and contradictory racial relations in public and private that makes In Mixed Company an important work, and reminds us that color-blind platitudes and color-conscious behavior stubbornly characterize the current American Dilemma that Gunner Myrdal wrote about in 1944. Through a sincere commitment to socially and aesthetically engaged art making, Willie Little continues his critique of America’s dilemma and his growth as an artist through an engaging wit and conceptual eloquence.
Bill Gaskins is an artist, essayist and professor of art in the departments of photography and critical studies at Parsons The New School For Design in New York.