New VMFA exhibition celebrates African American art, culture

Valerie Cassel Oliver stands next to “Housetop” Variation by Louisiana P. Bendolph, one of the quilters featured in the VMFA's latest exhibit. Photo by Gessler Santos Lopez

Andrew Ringle, Managing Editor

It’s been 400 years since Europeans brought the first enslaved African people to the shores of North America, to what is now Virginia. Since then, African and African American artists have used every possible medium to express sorrow, joy and fear. But until recently, black creators have received little recognition for their contributions to American culture as a whole.

“Cosmologies from the Tree of Life: Art from the African American South,” the newest addition to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, aims to correct the past four centuries of repudiation.

The free exhibition will include 34 works of art from Thornton Dial, Rita Mae Pettway, Mose Tolliver and other African and African American artists.

Valerie Cassel Oliver, the VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art, curated the exhibition.

“It doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Cassel Oliver said about the artwork. “There are influences everywhere. People, artists find influences and impulses to create everywhere, even in their grandmothers’ homes, even sitting at the kitchen table.”

In a statement, Cassel Oliver said the collective body of work underscores the contributions made by contemporary artists who were once designated as “folk,” “outsider,” “visionary” or “self-taught.”

“Those are rather pejorative terms to describe people that didn’t get a BFA, didn’t get an MFA, and aren’t, in a traditional sense, educated,” said VMFA director Alex Nyerges. “Well, that doesn’t mean they aren’t any less talented or less productive.”

Nyerges said American art institutions last year spent only 2% of their money acquiring African American art. Meanwhile, he said, the VMFA spent 28%.

“When you stop and think about America today, 400 years later, and think about the influence of African culture. Language, food, the arts … particularly, in our world, the visual arts,” Nyerges said. “The impact of that is so enormous, but the story hasn’t been fully told yet.”

The new exhibition features acquired artworks from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, an Atlanta-based organization that preserves and promotes work from contemporary African American artists.

“We are so pleased that these artworks have found a new home in the [VMFA],” said Maxwell L. Anderson, president of Souls Grown Deep Foundation, in a statement. “By their acquisition and this exhibition, the VMFA’s director and its curator of modern and contemporary [art] are contributing significantly to a broadened understanding of the history of American art.”

Popular works in the exhibition come from the famed multigenerational group of quilt-making women in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Some of the most elaborate quilts from artists Rita Mae Pettway, Jennie Pettway and Louisiana Bendolph are on display.

The quilts from Gee’s Bend are made from recycled fabrics, like clothing and flour sacks. Some of them — like the oldest on display from 1945 — have been frayed and stained during their long lifespans.

“These quilts were not made as ‘works of art’ to be hung in clinical institutions, such as the white hues of museums. They were created to be utilized, they were made to keep our families warm. So this quilt has been used,” Cassel Oliver said. “It has wear and tear in it. And we did not want to remove that, because these are the real, tangible things that make it quintessential in what it is.”

“Cosmologies from the Tree of Life” will be on display at the VMFA from June 8 until November 17. On June 6, curator Cassel Oliver will share highlights from the exhibition in a public lecture at the museum’s Leslie Cheek Theater. For more information, visit

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