DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA.- The Center for Documentary Studies presents "Juke Joint, An Installation by North Carolina Artist Willie Little." Juke Joint is an interactive, multimedia installation that brings to life the illegal liquor house artist Willie Little’s father ran in Pactolus Township, near Little Washington, North Carolina. The time is the late sixties and seventies, the patrons are here. It’s nighttime at the Little Grocery.
"At six or seven I was like a sponge absorbing all the ’goings-on’ in that tar-paper shotgun shack. Juke Joint is a historical and cultural work in that it documents a fading part of the rural lifestyle," Little says. "I utilize artifacts, distressed walls, sculptured mannequins, and a blues-filled narrative audio track to breathe life into the warm, humorous, sometimes seedy, yet real depiction of a slice of rural life."
Juke Joint re-creates the look and feel of a segment of Southern culture changed by the urban migration of African Americans, the commercialization of the blues, and other shifting forces. In their prime, many juke joints were twenty-four-hour convenience stores and liquor houses combined. Customers could buy bread, milk, candy bars, and various sundries during normal hours. Late at night, especially on weekends, they could buy corn liquor and name-brand alcohol in a setting conducive to good times.
"During the day, my father’s place was known as Little’s Grocery, but when night fell, so did its mask of civic purpose," says Little. "People stole in from across the county for a little gin, a little dancing and romancing. ’The Store’ was a physical metaphor for the masks upon masks that African Americans have often had to wear in a country that actively relegated their existence to the darkest corners, the darkest hours."
Juke Joint brings together a compelling assortment of characters. You’ll meet Miss Odell, "a frisky, slender woman with a raggedy mouth"; Pee Wee, "a drunken wanderer"; Sara Caroway, who "would stroll through Pactolus sporting a parasol no matter the weather"; Eshu and Glory, "inseparable lovers who always fought and made up"; Miss Margaret, "a dark, slender, dignified woman who smoked a million packs of cigarettes a day"; and Miss Beola, "who had a laugh that sounded like the down-shifting of an old car’s transmission, gears just a-grinding."
"The installation’s goal is to facilitate the viewer’s experience of the characters’ vivacity, their passions, and their desperate drive to not merely exist but to live joyfully despite the tragedy of a marginalized existence," says Little. "Juke Joint is about telling stories through my artwork as completely as I can. You see, the figures are surreal. They are based on real people, although I tried to make them appear even bigger than life. People, regardless of their background or race, can relate to the exhibit. It transcends the boundaries of the African American experience."
Born in 1961, Little received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In his artwork he explores and blends two- and three-dimensional art, personal narrative, and interactive installations. Drawing from the Southern traditions of North Carolina, the work celebrates the extraordinary nature of the everyday, what Little refers to as the "unsung things and people that are taken for granted." Little has had solo exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, Detroit; the College of Charleston, Charleston; The Museum of the New South, Charlotte; and the Dallas African-American Museum, Dallas. Group exhibitions include Arkansas Art Center, Little Rock; Lew Allen Contemporary Gallery, Sante Fe; and the Rice/Polak Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts.