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VMFA Celebrates Black History Month

Museum continues to increase its holdings of African-American art.


In the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's main atrium, three large neon words in sans-serif type greet museum visitors and project out through the window onto the Boulevard.

The white neon words — blues, blood, bruise — are from a work by New York artist Glenn Ligon titled "A Small Band" (2015). It was made specifically for the Venice Biennale, an event showcasing contemporary art in Venice, Italy, but was purchased for the museum's permanent collection and installed in November.

The VMFA played host to a talk by Ligon on Thursday, Feb. 8, to kick off its monthlong Black History Month activities, which include a commissioned mural by local artist Hamilton Glass, an African American read-in lead by local dignitaries like Mayor Levar Stoney, film screenings and other events.

Although Black History Month has been observed every February at the museum for many years, it seems particularly meaningful this year in the Old Dominion, which has been spiraling into chaos regarding politicians, among other things, donning — or not — blackface.

How better to talk about race, identity, and reconciliation than with art?

"A Small Band" centers on the story of the Harlem Six, African-American men who were wrongfully convicted of murder in 1965 in New York, and minimalist composer Steve Reich's experimental sound piece "Come Out" (1966), which used taped testimonies by the convicted men.

"A lot of my work deals with language and repetition and repetition towards abstraction," Ligon says. "But also I became interested in something that I heard in [Reich's] recording which nobody really talked about. Daniel Hamm (one of the six) makes a slip of the tongue (in his testimony). … What he actually says is, 'I had to open the bruise up to let some of the blues blood come out to show them.' That slip of the tongue between bruise and blues was really interesting to me."

Ligon's art has explored the tension between the connotation and denotation of language, especially within an American historical context.

"That's why I've dove into the case of the Harlem Six, because I think it was an important moment in this country's history and the '60s around these debates about police brutality and the justice system," Ligon says. "Debates that we're still having now."

For the last five years, the museum has highlighted the importance of storytelling by holding an African-American reading, an initiative begun by the black caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English. "The way we do it is with a twist, as it connects to art of course," explains its director of audience development and community engagement, Paula Saylor-Robinson.

Curators select five pieces by black artists from the museum's permanent collection and the education department chooses corresponding literature.

"We invite different community members, leaders, (and) people to come and read aloud for our patrons on that day in front of the work of art," Saylor Robinson says.

Last year Hamilton Glass was a reader. This year he was commissioned by the museum to create—with the aid of the public—a 32-foot-by-4-foot mural of eight panels that will be installed in the Cochrane Atrium adjacent to the Ligon piece.

On each panel, Glass has painted a community member such as artist Dennis Winston, Diversity Richmond Deputy Director Rodney Lofton, educator Ram Bhagat and others.

Glass says that "working with the public [adds] a bit more complexity to the project, but it also allows more people to feel connected to the work you are doing."

While the museum spotlights its initiatives for Black History Month, since 2015 it has demonstrated a commitment to acquiring art by African-American artists. In 2018, that numbered 95 works.

"Part of our strategic plan is focusing on African-American art, African-American artists, African-American visitation to the museum as well," Saylor-Robinson points out. "So that is something that we say we are concerned with and do 365 days a year and not just the month of February."

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