Read-in celebrates black identity and personhood through art and literature

From left: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, Nell Draper-Winston and Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Sarah Eckhardt in the “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” exhibit in the VMFA. Photo by Aerin Fortes

Aerin Fortes, Contributing Writer

Jiana Smith, Contributing Writer

Richmonders came together in a chic, music-filled space for an evening of black art and literature on Thursday at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ annual African American Read-In. 

This year’s event highlighted five works throughout the museum, each with an accompanying literary piece chosen by the museum curators and read by a distinguished figure in the city.

The president of the VMFA’s board of trustees, Dr. Monroe Harris, spoke highly of the crowd’s participation in the Black History Month event. 

“The diversity of this crowd is a reflection of what our mission is here at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — to bring all the citizens of Richmond together to be able to celebrate,” Harris said. 

One highlighted work was “Tightrope: Continuous Rotation Servos” by Elias Sime, a visual artist from Ethiopia. The piece, constructed from reclaimed electronic components and wire on panel, is a commentary on his hometown of Addis Ababa.

“It talks about the landscape of Addis Ababa right now, which is one of the largest dumping grounds of electronic waste,‌”‌ said VMFA Modern and Contemporary Art Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver.‌ “So what you’re looking at is taking this detritus, these wires from computers and parts from printers and creating something extraordinary from them.”‌

Oliver chose “Tizita for Rafael” by Dagmawi Woubshet to go alongside “Tightrope” due to its themes of in-betweenness and Woubshet’s Ethiopian heritage. Institute for Contemporary Art Assistant Curator Amber Esseiva and Tobias Wofford, an assistant art history professor at VCU, read the literary work. 

“I was kind of interested in the duality that they speak of — not being from here, being born in a place like Africa but also living in the United States, being gay in a world that is very heteronormative in a lot of ways,”‌ Esseiva said. “The split that people have to make between identity is really interesting to me.”

Esseiva believes that art is an important piece of black history. She said culture — art and music included — would be nonexistent without black people. 

 “It reminds people many expressions are rooted in the black American experience in a lot of ways, and the African experience as well,” Esseiva said.

“The diversity of this crowd is a reflection of what our mission is here at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts — to bring all the citizens of Richmond together to be able to celebrate.” Dr. Monroe Harris

Later in the night, the final reading was given in the Evans Court Gallery. Dozens gathered in the exhibit space of “Working Together: Louis Draper and the Kamoinge Workshop” to listen to Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.

Also speaking was Nell Draper-Winston, the younger sister of Louis Draper, the Richmond native who helped found the Kamoinge Workshop, which was organized as a support system for black photographers. Established in the 1960s, it sought to expand the horizons of African American artists searching for their identities.

Stoney and Draper-Winston spoke in front of photographs from the Kamoinge Workshop depicting young black teenagers from Harlem and the Bronx. 

Draper-Winston went first, reciting “Harlem” by Langston Hughes, who she claimed as one of her favorite poets. Aside from his talent and that she remembers him being so handsome, Draper-Winston admires Hughes because he stepped up to guide her brother.

“[Hughes] had seen some of my brother’s photos,” Draper-Winston said. “He could see the passion. He could see different things in the photos, and he took Louis under his wing and became a mentor to him, and I really appreciated that.”

Stoney proceeded, reading Hughes’ 17-stanza “Let America Be America Again.” The poem is a fierce analysis of freedom in the United States.

The poem reads “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, / Tangled in that ancient endless chain / Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!” 

Stoney recited these lines with a strong volume. The poem emphasizes the idea that although black youth are still American, achieving the American dream is much more difficult for them than white immigrants.

“Tightrope:‌ Continuous Rotation Servos”‌ is in the VMFA’s 21st Century Gallery. “Boy and H, Harlem” can be found in the Evans Court Gallery.

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