With its burst of blue sea spray and serene expression, the image of Yoruban water deity Yemoja stands in contrast to the glass and steel exterior of the Institute for Contemporary Art and its surrounding streetscape of red brick and asphalt.
The work of Dominican American artist Firelei Báez, the mural, titled “Moon Minded the Sun Goes Farther (to the Daughters of Revolutions, Who Could Fly Between the Artibonite and the James River),” superimposes the water spirit over old maps of Richmond and Philadelphia, as well as imagery from this year’s Black Lives Matter protests at the Lee monument. To Noah Simblist, the mural “signals simultaneously moments of transformation, but also a healing balm over the fires of discord.”
“To see things on the outside [of the building] that have a spirit that feels dynamic and human and inviting has been powerful for a lot of folks,” says Simblist, co-curator of the institute’s ongoing exhibit “Commonwealth.” The striking mural hasn’t gone unnoticed by social media either: “This one has been a huge hit for selfies.”
First suggested by former chief curator and exhibit co-curator Stephanie Smith, the installation explores the connections and differences of Puerto Rico, Virginia and Pennsylvania – three places all designated as commonwealths.
“It’s basically a meditation on the term ‘commonwealth,’ something that’s been around for hundreds of years that initially was meant as a utopian gesture,” Simblist says. “Who was the ‘we’ of ‘we the people’ that were coming together for the common good, and could have those rights and all those benefits?”
The culmination of two years of research and community engagement by the ICA, the Philadelphia Contemporary in Philadelphia and Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, “Commonwealth” involves artists from all three localities and was intended to have showings at all three places. Instead, because of complications from the pandemic, Richmond will be its only exhibition.
Among other themes, the exhibit highlights Puerto Rico’s status as an unincorporated territory of the United States, which some view as a form of colonialism. Through a series of hanging fabric panels, Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo highlights this history with a digital collage of colorful public utility bonds, such as water, sewerage and electricity.
Puerto Rico native Alicia Díaz, an associate professor of dance at the University of Richmond, and collaborators choreographed and filmed a dance titled “Entre Puerto Rico y Richmond: Women in Resistance Shall Not Be Moved” that explores the colonizing connection between the two localities. Filmed in a former American Tobacco Co. warehouse in Manchester, the work highlights the efforts of labor activist Luisa Capetillo and Afro-Puerto Rican nationalist leader Dominga de la Cruz Becerril.
In addition to the mural of Yemoja, the exterior of the building features a mural by Puerto Rican artist Monica Rodriguez that explores monuments to Caribbean independence from colonizing forces, including in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
“These places have had a lot of struggles over the years, where nationalism and independence doesn’t necessarily mean freedom,” says Simblist, chair and associate professor of painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. “These are monuments to independence, which are great moments, but [it asks] if the political structure they represent actually fulfilled their promise.”
Though the project predates Richmond’s recent efforts to cast off its monuments to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, patrons of the institute have noted the connection between the installation and our current political moment.
“We’ve gotten a lot of comments of how it spoke to what was happening here,” Simblist says. “It gives a different context to the concept of monuments. It’s a different conversation, but not totally different.”
In recognition of Richmond’s conversation, a resiliency garden has sprung up in the ICA’s parking lot. The handiwork of local food and environmental activist Duron Chavis, architect Quilian Riano and others, the garden features raised beds of fruit, vegetables and flowers, and is intended to highlight issues of food security and the need for Black and brown community spaces.
Noting that the institute has been tagged with graffiti during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and stands at the intersection where a GRTC bus was burned by protesters in May, Simblist says that the community appears to have recognized the purpose of the garden.
“This has been untouched. There’s some tools that are left out here. It has been left pristine,” Simblist says. “People understand the generosity that’s part of the spirit of the project.”
“Commonwealth” runs through Jan. 31 at the Institute for Contemporary Art, 601 W. Broad St. For information, visit icavcu.org or call 804-828-2823.