Willie Little takes on tea party, Klan in exhibition

In 2010, artist Willie Little began a satirical body of work about racism in the tea party movement.

But several years into his project, Little, formerly of Charlotte, developed a life-threatening illness. After regaining his health, he found his creative vision more acute, and he attacked the work with a new fearlessness.

The exhibition, “In the Hood,” at New Gallery of Modern Art, is an indictment of tea party extremists who perpetuate the ideology of the Ku Kux Klan, he said.

One of his main strategies, Little says, is to surround racist artifacts with hip-hop symbols, wedding “the KKK with the very culture it may hate so much, thus becoming perhaps its metaphorical worst nightmare.” And there are plenty of teabags, ranging from cheap grocery-store bags to trendy silken pyramidal bags, which, in this context, look like tiny Klan hoods.

The centerpiece of the show is the title work, a large installation that is, literally, in the hood – a 20-foot-tall walk-in Klan hood that houses disturbing objects.

Inside the hood is a life-size figure – Little’s rendition of the Hottentot Venus, an enslaved South African woman named Sarah Baartman, who was displayed in London freak shows because of her enormous buttocks and may have inspired the bustle. Here, her skirt is made from 1,000 hand-dipped black teabags. Above her is a chandelier of ornamental pearl strands, interspersed with blackface baby dolls.

Rounding out “In the Hood” is a collection of bling – a 4-foot-diameter glittering Mercedes Benz medallion and several “Ghetto Clocks” plastered with items including a “Yes We Klan” sign and Louis Vuitton wallpaper.

Although the installation is over the top, Little has exercised a lot of discretion. Everything – whether a sign, a bead, a doll or a teabag – is there for a reason.

“Hottentot” and “Minstrel Effigy,” multimedia works on panel, have a quiet, thoughtful power. The former is an empathetic depiction the Hottentot Venus. In the latter, a dancing minstrel doll – a highly collectable, if offensive, item – stands atop a pile of burned wood on a shelf, symbolically burning in effigy; hidden underneath the shelf are vintage images of minstrels.

A series of tongue-in-cheek paintings that combine patriotic imagery and commentary on race include perhaps the most outrageous object in the show: a Klan-hood tea cozy. There are other works in the show that are more serious, but these are the riskiest in their explicit linking of the KKK and the tea party.

While creating these works, Little often thought about being an idealistic 18-year-old heading to predominately white UNC Chapel Hill and how he envisioned his future in a country filled with racial harmony. Instead, he says, “I’m saddened that we have to have Moral Mondays in my home state, I’m saddened that there is voter suppression in my home state, I’m saddened that there are Selma-like militia police forces in this country in 2014.”

Despite its confrontational nature and its anger, “In the Hood” does not come off as bitter or divisive. It is, in fact, heartfelt and cathartic.

Says Little, “I still want to be optimistic.”

Editor’s note: This review has been changed to reflect the following clarification:

“A review of the “In the Hood” exhibition at the New Gallery of Modern Art that said some “tea party extremists” perpetuate the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan should have attributed that viewpoint to the exhibition.”