During May 2000, I participated in a month-long printmaking residency, along with another American artist and two South African artists-at the Caversham Press in Kwa Zulu Natal, South Africa. The Caversham Press is South Africa’s first independent professional printmaking facility, and sponsors educational programs, artist’s residencies and printmaking workshops throughout South Africa to explore expressive potential of the printmaking medium.
The thematic focus of the work during the residency was Baggage. Each of us agreed to create new work employing this theme. My works take a look at “American Baggage”. I have entitled the series, which takes a look at America’s sense of self-righteousness at the close of the 20th century and which no doubt is founded in 19th Century America’s faith in “Manifest Destiny”- God Given Birthright.
The series consists of four parts, three works on paper and one handmade book. The three works on paper all employ the image of the shopping bag. Why a shopping bag? Shopping bags permit us to carry and protect the things that we value. I feel the shopping bag is interpreted in both the United States and South Africa as a symbol of simplicity and convenience. However, in America we appear to attribute status to, and derive psychological comfort from, carrying bags branded with luxury logos. In this affection for carrying upscale shopping bags, I find a metaphor for American arrogance, American self-righteousness.
The inspiration for the first image, entitled God took place on the grounds of the Caversham Press. An old Methodist church is the home of The Caversham Press. These grounds contain an old cemetery and wonderful inspiring vistas found only in that part of South Africa. The artists working there found these grounds both inspiring and sacred.
From a technical perspective, the shape of the rose came from a rubbing from a granite burial stone found in the cemetery. Looking at the rose, one immediately thinks of its beauty. But the rose struck me subliminally because the shape of a gun was hidden within. Thus the image of the gun, hidden within this beautiful rose on a monument to the dead was my thematic transition to, and the underlying theme of the second work in this series.
The second image titled, Given, views the American Bill of Rights as both legal and philosophical basis for American’s sense of their right of entitlement. The principle design element which is handwritten repetitively throughout the work and appears in the heart of the print, is the right to bear arms taken from the Second Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.
The third image, Birthright, looks at the Bible as a crutch to justify bigotry and hatred. Each print contains a different page from the bible which I’ve chosen to address issues including “women as submissive, women in the clergy, sexuality and other themes. I painstakingly repeated carving into the plate tiny crosses. The cross in the heart of the image is intended to give the illusion of being branded into each bible page.
Creating this series was a labor of love. I was able to work with etchings that incorporate the linocut and chine colle’ process, as well as silk screen. We completed limited edition prints of 30, but only half are available in the United States. The entire series traveled in an exhibition in several venues in South Africa, Belgium and in the States in 2001.
While completing the prints in South Africa I was quite aware of the magnitude, passion and depth of the work I attempted to create. At the same time, I questioned the moral validity and political implications of these issues in both American and South African contexts. These issues affect the daily lives of people living in both countries. However, their impact and magnitude in the eyes of South African Artists and working people I met, made my “American Baggage” feel less important, less significant. Nonetheless, I left South Africa with a clearer understanding of both my own humanity and how American contemporary attitudes continue to influence societies and cultures far from our shores. This work marked my beginning to make social justice art.
God, Colorgraph with linocut center, 19 x 25, 2000
Given, Silkscreen, 19 x 25, 2000
Birthright, Linocut with chine colle center, 19 x25, 2000
Birthright, Colograph with chine colle center, 19 x 25, 2000
Willie Little is a Black artist and storyteller from North Carolina who currently splits his time between Oakland, CA and Portland Oregon.