Willie Little, Artist and Storyteller

Black As...

Black As - is a body of work that is an emancipation of preconceived notions and conventional ideas regarding the "value" placed on skin color within the African American community. The series began to take shape while I participated in the artist-in-residence program at the Tryon Center for Visual Art in 1999 (now McColl Center) in North Carolina. The inspiration for the series came from a piece titled, She Must Have Wrote a Book, from an earlier exhibition, Kinfolks. Grandma Flora Ann, my maternal grandmother and recurring muse, had me under her spell as I sought to create a series of her old sayings. I was fascinated and amused by her  quick wit and command of colloquialisms.   While creating this series I found the perfect expressive icon for the work –Pickaninny, nodder doll banks. In this body of work I have lifted  “grandmas” phrases and vivid expressions to describe the wonderment of the quintessential black beauty.

Before the "Black is Beautiful" movement of the 1960s, generations of dark-skinned African-Americans were the brunt of racial slurs and insults from within and without the Black community particularly in the South. Those with healthy appreciation for their dark hues learned to combat the slurs with vivid colorful retorts. Grandma would say, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice." As she grew older and more lovely, she would remind their fairer companions that, "Good black don't crack."

The nodder dolls I collected had an innocence, an allure, a seductive, yet benign quality that were an enticing inspiration to create this work. Ironically, these dolls were made in China in the 1940s and 50s, sold to and marketed by white America yet classified as Black Americana. Nickels, pennies and dimes, deposited on the premise that these black faces would remain a joke now net hundreds, thousands and millions on fashion runways and magazine covers in contemporary society. These nodder dolls, considered "collector's items", become a mirror to the evolution of society's appreciation and value  of the beauty of black skin

In this series I utilize oil on canvas paintings, assemblage as well as constructions. In the multimedia oil on canvas pieces, the rough texture and color of the canvas is reminiscent of tar and oil smeared and dripped on hot pavement in sultry summer.  The layers of black, brown, and blue paint in the pieces respond to the myriad of African Americans skin shades. I attempt to bestow charm, humor and familiarity of rural colloquialisms, to reclaim and embrace these descriptions with loving affection. "Black as the Ace of Spades", "Black as Tar", "Jet Black", "Black as Coal"..., once barbs that reeled like four letter words are now emancipated to re- present  the image and challenge preconceived notions and conventional ideas.

The juxtaposition of the nodder dolls with recognized consumer products pose social satire. With products such as Carolina Beauty Blackberries, Hershey's Sweet Chocolate and Esquires Boot Black Polish which proudly states, "Resists rub-off,”  the series ultimately allows us the look beyond the stereotype to see and embrace the beauty of the hue.

Multimedia assemblage with oil and wax medium, 12x16 2002.

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