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“my papa used to play checkers” and the African American diaspora

Written by on Friday, June 30, 2023

The Sarasota Art Museum opened Woods’ “my papa used to play checkers” exhibit, focused on the African American diaspora. WSLR’s Kathleen Murray interviewed museum curator Rangsook Yoon about the exhibit.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: June 28, 2023


Official Transcript

Host: Stephanie J. Woods is a rising star of southern art, thanks to her photography, videos and sculptures. This African American artist was born and grew up in the Carolinas, and she now teaches interdisciplinary art at the University of New Mexico. The Sarasota Art Museum put Woods and itself on the map by recently opening her “my papa used to play checkers” exhibit. On her ArtBeat show on Monday, WSLR’s Kathleen Murray interviewed Sarasota Art Museum curator Rangsook Yoon about the Woods exhibit. We have the details.

Stephanie J. Woods grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her multimedia work is all about exploring black Southern American culture and identity, and the impact of involuntary cultural assimilation. Woods recently spent a month and a half in Senegal and her experience in West Africa has inspired and informed a new exhibit titled “my papa used to play checkers” that’s now on display at the Sarasota Art Museum. During her time in Senegal, she witnessed firsthand how much African culture and tradition has survived and continues to thrive in black American communities.

Rangsook Yoon: While she was in Dakar, she witnessed that so many cultural connections between the southern United States, whose history and other black people’s identity she has been investigating for the last 10 years. And she saw things like the textiles that are sold by street vendors. Those colorful textiles reminded her of her life, you know, growing up as a black young woman in the southern United States. And she saw women in the same kind of braids. And so many plays and games, and the foods that are consumed in West Africa have similarities to what is consumed here.

So they became kind of the evidence the black African diaspora’s resilience and those surviving narratives, despite all the hardships. So the works really like create this celebratory, immersive experience focusing on certain elements she has been exploring in the past years, but were so reinvigorated by her firsthand experience of Africa.

Host: The title of the exhibition is named after a photograph showing her grandfather playing checkers. The same game of draughts that the Senegalese people play today was, for her, a familiar childhood pastime. Dr. Yoon, the curator, explains how this triggered Woods’ memories of her grandfather she didn’t even know she had.

RY: The exhibition’s title, “my papa used to play checkers,” really refers to her memory of playing checkers with her grandfather, but it’s a memory she didn’t really think about for a while. For a long time.

Host: Most of the exhibits at Sarasota Art Museum are a direct outcome of the traces of transatlantic continuity and memories Woods found. There’s the watermelon sandcastle made of sand from Galveston, Texas, the site of the events that are now known as Juneteenth. There is a video, “your destination is in a different time zone,” and there’s a suspended curtain woven from hair and ceramic okra titled “we make them gumbo?”

RY: There are some really interesting pieces in there. One work is called “we making gumbo?” It’s like a curtain consisting of 196 porcelain okras that connected with box braid, the synthetic hair. And then the hair base that are connected and like a curtain. It’s so inviting that people want to go through it, although it’s not a real interactive curtain, but it shows how powerful and alluring the piece is. And that title itself is making reference to her experience of seeing how, in many West African languages, okra called gumbo, like the kind of dish.

Host: And there’s sound too. Woods’ creations are accompanied by poems written by frequent collaborator laura neal in response to her work. Music composed by Johannes Barfield, who happens to be her partner, round out this exhibition.

The Woods exhibition will run through September 17th in the Sarasota Art Museum, which is located in the old Sarasota High School brick building off the South Tamiami Trail near Mount Road. The museum is open seven days a week from 10 to 5, Sundays 11 to 5. Admission of $15 covers both the Woods and the Black Vanguard exhibition.

To listen to the full ArtBeat interview with Rangsook Yoon, go to wslr.org, click on “Archive,” and look for the June 26th edition of ArtBeat.

This was Johannes Werner for WSLR News.


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