VMFA event pairs African-American art with poetry

“The Quarry” by Robert Scott Duncanson visualizes the relationship between industry and the environment. The dry area in the foreground represents humanity’s impact on the world. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer

Walter Chidozie Anyanwu, Contributing Writer

Richmonders and VCU community members shared a night of powerful storytelling and appreciation for African-American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Feb. 21.

To celebrate Black History Month, the VMFA hosted its annual “African-American Read-In,” which featured a different reading every 15 minutes. Speakers recited poems by African-American authors in front of art that related to the poetry.

“It’s always nice to have a cross section of voices from different backgrounds because we all interpret it differently,” said Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, author and VCU assistant professor. “That’s what art does, you find it where you are and you make sense of it yourself.”

McMillan Cottom read “Joy in the Woods,” a poem by Claude McKay that describes a black laborer working in a capitalist society. His freedom is limited because of the way society looks down at the working class. McMillan Cottom read the poem in front of a Robert Scott Duncanson painting called “The Quarry.”

Created during the Harlem Renaissance, “The Quarry” visualizes the relationship between a worker and their environment.

Themes of social inequality prevail throughout the text, and the image of nature’s freedom in the background contrasted with the poem’s content.

“The Quarry” displays three signs of industry and the progression between them. The foreground shows a dry, undeveloped area of land. The middle ground shows an area with vegetation, and the background shows several trees and mountains.

“[The event is] designed to highlight the black artists in the collection,” McMillan Cottom said. “They don’t pull out the black art and put it all in one room. The fact that you have to move through the entire museum to see the respected pieces says that those things are interwoven into all of the art.”

Another piece highlighted at the event was “Willem van Heythuysen” by Kehinde Wiley. The painting depicts an African-American man posing with a sword, imitating the Dutchman in Frans Hals’ “Willem van Heythuysen Posing with a Sword.” The man depicted wears Sean John streetwear and Timberland boots to confirm his role in the contemporary world. Wiley’s piece points out similarities and differences between the two time periods.

Kehinde Wiley’s painting titled “Willem van Heythuysen” depicts a contemporary black man wearing Timberland boots and Sean John streetwear. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

The “Old Master,” which was created during the Renaissance period, illustrates elegant red and gold swords against a vibrant background with blooming gold tendrils.

The work is from a series of Wiley’s paintings that insert African-Americans into the styles used in the Renaissance to praise their elegance while criticizing the exclusion of people of color.

An excerpt from George Jackson’s “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson” accompanied the piece. It was read by Chioke I’Anson, an assistant professor in VCU’s Department of African-American Studies.

In the excerpt, Jackson writes to his girlfriend about the conditions he faces in prison. He reflects struggles faced by black people in America during the 1960s and emphasizes his willingness to resist oppression.

“Whenever anybody can be under really bad conditions and still express themselves eloquently and amazingly,” I’Anson said, “you’ve got to pay attention to that.”

The event included other pieces and readings that focused largely on the same themes, such as Pixley Seme’s 1906 speech “The Regeneration of Africa.” The speech was read in front of a large Kente Cloth in the African Galleries of the museum.

I’Anson said public performances of African-American art give people the opportunity to learn about societies, cultures and struggles they might not have known otherwise.

“It shows people what you do at the museum, you come and you be a person,” McMillan Cottom said. “It doesn’t have to be intimidating, you don’t have to get dressed up, you don’t have to know what the pictures are about.”

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