The Woodson African American Museum

St. Petersburg, Florida

2021

Huff + Gooden Architects is the lead design architect along with executive architects Wannenmaker Jensen Architects for the design of The Woodson African American Museum. The design stretches its program along the historic South 22nd Street Corridor (The Deuces) which was the main street of African American business and culture in St. Petersburg including home to the famous jazz venue, the Manhattan Casino. Furthermore, the design critically explores a spatial practice of liberation and investigates the ways in which Black bodies move through space in the cultural context of America.

Black spatial liberation is a praxis of appropriation and improvisation. In order to overcome the exclusionary conditions of segregation and denial of rights to inhabit certain spaces, Blacks creatively appropriated various landscapes and other spaces to invent new programs and forms of visibility. Furthermore, these programs have never been static but agile, transformable, and fluid…. suggestive of the ways in which Blacks have moved through space; negotiated the boundaries and barriers of social, political, and economic landscapes; and migrated from one location to another while reformulating spatial conditions and improvising new ways of being.

“The jazz artist constantly reworks her identity on three levels: (1) as an individual, (2) as a member of a community; and (3) as a “link in the chain of tradition”. Nothing is ever a given. Who you are, the people you live with and for, the culture you bear: everything remains open to question, probing, re-evaluation….” (Ralph Ellison). This process of constant redefinition is also a process of abstraction such as in the work of Romare Bearden that is a “search for fresh methods to explore the plastic possibilities of Negro American experience.” Bearden’s use of abstraction is also a means to confront the translation of black life not in terms of sentimentality, cliché, or expected tropes of black expression but the work teaches us the ambiguity of vision and insists that we see in depth and by the fresh light of the creative vision. Hence in Bearden’s collage work entitled Jazz Village (1967), Cubist like elements abstract the representations of the musicians while at the same time the elements create a subtle vibration of movement to their bodies and instruments. Yet the collage elements and their juxtapositions also point to the affinities of Black bodies to each other in space in terms of postures, gestures, and body language. The layering of seemingly disjunctive textures and patterns, creates a shifting of foreground and background while alluding to the figurative and perceptual depth of the collage as well as the multi-valency of representation.

The constant process of redefinition in jazz as well as the exploration of the plastic possibilities of Negro experience in Bearden’s work point to the underlying condition of resiliency in Blackness.