Talking to her friend, Black artist Lynn Stevens, after the 2016 election, Jennifer Yane commented that she felt the country was in an awfully bad place in terms of racism and xenophobia. Steven’s response stopped her cold. “Why? Nothing’s different for Blacks.”
Not long after, Yane, also an artist, attended the opening of Anne Wrinn’s exhibition at a Black-owned gallery. Given the newly minted national climate of overt racism and fear, the two conceived of an art exhibit to show solidarity and support for Black lives.
The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond housed the first BLM RVA show at the request of nonmembers Wrinn and Yane. The church was an obvious choice because of its history of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, which it had been doing since 2014 after the killing of Trayvon Martin. A BLM banner has hung for years from the church, despite numerous attempts to deface it, and the church runs a regular racial justice workshop, currently through Zoom, titled “Taking the Pledge,” to expose systemic racism.
Yane says that the planning of the 2021 BLM RVA show gained an even greater sense of urgency and meaningfulness considering the continuing killing of Black people.
“The heated controversy over the removal of white supremacist statues this year underscores the necessity of public art that tells a more balanced story,” she says. The online-only exhibition will feature 83 artists guest curated by Francis Thompson of Capital One and Emily Smith of 1708 Gallery. As in the past, all proceeds go directly to the artists, who are asked to make a donation to Black Lives Matter.
Co-organizer Shantell Lewis, an artist who specializes in mixed media collages on canvas, participated in the exhibitions in 2017 and 2018 and will again for the 2021 show.
“As a country, we saw so much occur in 2020 relating to social injustice, voting and elections rights, health disparities, unity and historical moments such as the first Black women elected vice president,” Lewis says. She sees the show as providing artists the ability to heal and reflect on Black life in America as they see it, especially through the rash of events that 2020 brought. “This show couldn’t have come at a better time to reveal such reflections through artwork of different media and styles.”
The show opens Feb. 5, coinciding with Black History Month, with a First Friday Zoom opening with actress Daphne Maxwell Reid as host. Each artist who wishes to participate will have two minutes to discuss their work.
Miguel Carter-Fisher had been asked to participate in the past and hadn’t, but when this year’s opportunity arose, he admits to feeling compelled to be a part of it. A narrative painter whose work over the past few years has focused primarily on the human body, Carter-Fisher works in oils and uses historical painting techniques to express his contemporary experience. He stresses the importance of highlighting diversity within the Black experience. Because he’s biracial, he’s personally experienced how difficult it is to bring a person's Blackness into the greater culture surrounding the visual arts.
“Just as abstract expressionism, photo realism, romanticism and classicism are treated as aesthetic categories, so is Black art. It’s as if you can't be a Black abstract expressionist, a Black photo realist, a Black romantic or a Black classicist,” he explains. “You’re valued not for your individuality but for your group affiliation and robbed of the individual agency your white colleagues could not imagine living without, because you’re expected to act as a representative of the whole of Blackness.” He points out that no white art students are asked in a critique to explain how their work represents the white experience.
Given the tumultuous political and social climate, co-chairs Yane and Lewis are aiming for the BLM RVA exhibition to be part of the nation’s healing process. The organizers’ stated mission is to assemble a virtual collection of works from local and regional artists that enables the community to gather to combat institutional racism, champion racial justice and promote spaces for the Black imagination.
It’s Carter-Fisher’s hope that the proliferation of Black voices, as well as that of other minority groups in the visual arts, will bring about a multicultural synthesis and celebration of individual expression as rich and diverse as jazz was a century ago. He sees the BLM RVA exhibition as a beginning.
“The most radical act a person of color can commit today is to fully embrace the wholeness of their humanity,” he says. “I hope this show helps us do that. For me, and for my students at Virginia State, that’s a part of what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter.”