Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965. The following month brought Bloody Sunday, a brutal attack by Alabama state troopers on a group of civil-rights protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery.
In August, president Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. A week later, Los Angeles exploded into disorder centered on racial discrimination and police brutality that came to be called the Watts Riots.
That same month, Ebony magazine published a special issue titled “The White Problem in America,” which contained author and social critic James Baldwin’s important essay, “The White Man’s Guilt,” with the subhead, “Novelist views racism as whites’ self-estrangement.”
Baldwin’s essay is the inspiration for the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University’s newest exhibition, “Great Force,” which opens Saturday, Oct. 5, and includes painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance art alongside community discussions about race. With work by artists like Carrie Mae Weems and William Pope. L, the exhibition is already garnering national attention: The New York Times named it one of 100 exhibitions or events that “define the new season.”
Specifically, the exhibition title references Baldwin’s call: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
As the news release explains, “Great Force,” which includes work by 21 artists spread over the first and second floors and emphasizes perspectives of artists of color, “explor(ing) how contemporary artists contend with persistent black-white racial bias and inequality.”
Richmond audiences might recognize artists such as Glenn Ligon, whose “A Small Band” (2015) featuring the neon words “blues blood bruise” hangs prominently in the atrium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Or Bethany Collins, whose work was shown two years ago at 1708 Gallery. The exhibition also features work by Virginia natives, including Kevin Beasley, who hails from Lynchburg and is best known for dipping housedresses and Nike Air Jordans in tar, and Tony Cokes, a River City native and VCU alumnus.
“Great Force” began as an extended research project in 2017 and is the solo curatorial debut at the institute for assistant curator Amber Esseiva, who previously co-curated exhibitions with Chief Curator Stephanie Smith. “Great Force” is also the first exhibition at the ICA to be supported in part by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I can’t tell you why we got it, but post 2016 and the political situation … I think our proposal to really extend the language away from racial binaries and divisive language was one that was needed,” Esseiva explains. “The scope of the exhibition brings a large group of artists to Richmond, most of which have not had visibility here. It’s an intergenerational show.”
For this exhibition, the institute commissioned several artworks including Radcliffe Bailey’s “Untitled” (2019), a mixed media two-dimensional canvas made with tarp, black glitter and a photograph. But it’s the commissioned community projects that likely will get the most attention. Charlotte Lagarde’s “Colonial White” (2019) is an ongoing artwork that began this summer. Participants are given a paint-chip sample marked “Colonial White” and prompted to take a picture of the card in a place or situation that “embodies whiteness to them,” according to a news release.
Alexandra Bell’s “Counternarratives” (2019), which will be installed on buildings around the city, examines the ways that language and media outlets continue racial narratives. Tomashi Jackson’s site-specific public drawing on the ICA’s windows responds to racial injustices by imagining new histories. Each drawing begins as a representational portrait that is modified, erased, and abstracted over the duration of the exhibition.
To date, the institute, which has an ongoing endowment campaign, has welcomed 120,000 visitors or approximately 1,500 guests per week, half of whom are affiliated with the university and three-quarters under the age of 35.
Executive Director Dominic Willsdon promises that the institute’s first strategic plan will be unveiled to the public in November alongside new initiatives that will be announced later this year and in early 2020.
“Ultimately, we have the opportunity to create a new kind of cultural and educational institute for the 2020s and beyond,” he says. “A museum preserves, an institute produces. We exist to produce and share new artworks, exhibitions, experiences, conversations, ideas and opportunities for artists, students and our various communities.”
“Great Force” runs Saturday, Oct. 5 through Jan. 5 at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. For information, visit icavcu.org.