ICA’s newest exhibit digs deep into race and inequality

“Monument of Color” by Tomashi Jackson (right) was painted on the windows of the ICA during the opening reception of "Great Force". Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

Upon entering a wide room with bright natural light, a large turquoise arch — composed of several large octagons — towers overhead and immediately greets incoming viewers. This powder-coated aluminum steel represents the cold and distant relationship of a family that lacks intimacy and warmth.

The sculpture is “Swear it Closed, Closes it” by Sable Elyse Smith, and it’s on display at the Institute for Contemporary Art as an introduction to the site’s newest exhibition, “Great Force.”

“Great Force” was curated by VCU alum and ICA assistant curator Amber Esseiva, and it discusses racial constructs in historical and contemporary contexts. 

“Throughout the work that you see on view, there is a collective refusal to reproduce the events visually, in which black lives were subjugated, forced into white supremacy,” Esseiva said. 

Esseiva graduated from VCU in 2009 with a B.A. in art history and also co-curated the ICA’s inaugural exhibition, “Declaration.”

The ICA premiered the exhibit to the public on Friday as a part of its opening reception celebration, which featured a live DJ set, a “Provocations” performance by Chino Amobi and a live window painting of “Monument of Color” by featured artist Tomashi Jackson.

“Great Force has been a long time in the making, it’s an honor for us to present the artists that are shown here,” said ICA director Dominic Willsdon. “The ICA team has worked long and well on this project.”

Throughout the exhibition’s two levels, the 24 artists depict portrayals and stories of contemporary African Americans with comparisons to slavery and institutionalized racism. The exhibit includes film, TV, sculptures and paintings. 

“The artists on view all utilize sorts of strategies and different mediums to grapple with events that make history of injustices most evident,” Esseiva said. 

New York artist Xaviera Simmons is one of the featured artists — she created a digital video installation titled “Capture (Say a butterfly had to die for you to get a gift-there must be some kind of prayer in).” 

“I spent a year really thinking about the topic at hand, like thinking about the actual conversation at hand that Amber was constructing,” Simmons said, “and then thinking about the nuances that need to happen in the conversation — but also thinking about the weight.”

The artwork is spread across three televisions suspended in the air. Each monitor displays something different: a list of slaveholders’ names, a video of Simmons arranging vibrant plants and a black-and-white display of falling spherical figures.

“Throughout the work that you see on view, there is a collective refusal to reproduce the events visually, in which black lives were subjugated, forced into white supremacy.” — Amber Esseiva

“Artists, we can push, but we really can’t solve these issues. These are centuries-old issues in this country that are now being excavated,” Simmons said. “So for me, I really wanted to have a few different minds inside of the work, so there’s no one conclusion but there is a sense.”

The piece is intended to overwhelm the senses by alternating different paces and levels of serenity. 

“Whiteness is like a continuum that never leaves. It’s like a ghost that has haunted every moment of my life at all times,” Simmons said.

Esseiva said the title of the exhibition, “Great Force,” is derived from a quote by James Baldwin, who examined the “force of whiteness and the counter force of black radical resistance and the color line, both as a conceptual and physical site.”

Baldwin’s influence — as well as other 19th century thinkers such as W.E.B. DuBois and Frederick Douglass — and contemporary artists inspired Esseiva in the creation of the exhibition.

“History is such a present context. It’s a very particular task to be a cultural institution dedicated to the present and future in a place where historical legacies and historical traumas of our lives every day,” Willsdon said. “In many ways, the story of the United States is the story of race.”

“Great Force” will be on display at the ICA until Jan. 5.

To learn more, visit icavcu.org.

'Great Force' opening exhibition
Featured artist, Xaviera Simmons, presents the digital video installation Capture that addresses the history of slave labor in America. Photo by Wessam Hazaymeh
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