Sanjana Ravulapalli, Contributing Writer
As students enter VCU’s Fine Arts Building, large black letters on the floor lined with the Pan-African colors of green, red and yellow spell “Black Lives Matter.” The students and artists behind the project say it’s a good first step in holding VCUarts accountable for its statements in support of diversity and inclusion.
Seven VCUarts alumni created the mural, initiated by Aaron Douglas Estrada, who graduated in May from the school’s master program in sculpture and extended media.
Estrada said the Fine Arts Building at 1000 W. Broad St. was chosen to house the mural because the space already functions as a gathering area for conversation.
“By placing the Black Lives Matter text within institutional spaces, they begin to establish much-needed conversations about systemic racism,” Estrada said. “However, we must also keep in mind that the text on the floor is not enough, but let it be a move toward greater commitment to enact real change toward ending racial injustice.”
Inspired by various Black Lives Matter murals and artwork across the country, Estrada proposed an idea to VCUarts: Install a mural in solidarity with the movement, and have open conversations on how to move forward as an art community.
“It is a disservice to our communities and us to not do anything,” Estrada said. “Black culture and people should be acknowledged and respected as a keystone in the growth of this country.”
Estrada reached out to friends from the VCU community who were available to help. He said the hand-painted mural took about two days to create and was completed on Aug. 13. Artists were also paid for their time and labor. The group consisted of artists and former VCUarts students Aaron Douglas Estrada, Ruben Rodriguez, Luis Vasquez La Roche, LaRissa Rogers, Cielo Felix-Hernandez, Mariana Parisca and Sandy Williams IV.
“I admire their work. I honestly wish I could have invited more friends but because of COVID-19, access to campus and participants had to be limited,” Estrada said.
Artist LaRissa Rogers, who typically works with performance, moving images and installation art, happened to be in town when asked by Estrada to help with the mural. Rogers graduated from VCU’s painting and printmaking department in 2019 and is currently living in Los Angeles.
“We hope that the mural will encourage students, faculty, and staff to have frank conversations and open dialogue with one another about racial injustice.” — Suzanne Silitch
Rogers said installing the mural by the Fine Arts Building was significant given past allegations about prejudice within the VCUarts community. She said it felt liberating to see the mural installed.
“I think it was a public statement that was necessary to have, especially within that space,” Rogers said. “I know a lot of POC artists or people within that space felt that they weren’t always necessarily welcome there.”
Rogers said the mural was a good first step in holding VCU accountable.
“I’m not sure how much it will actually structurally change how these systems are set up and running, and I think that that’s gonna require more than a mural,” Rogers said, “but I think it’s hopeful for students of color and a way to kind of build this community of support.”
In April 2019, several VCUarts students sought to address what they called racial inequities and discrimination within the department after a painting and printmaking professor called security on a Black colleague. VCUarts addressed several of the group demands, including implementing increased bias training, midterm course evaluations and inclusion of non-Western perspectives in course materials.
“VCUarts acknowledges that instances of systemic racism have negatively affected students, faculty, and staff, and the school is committed to rebuilding that trust,” the school said in a Sept. 2 release.
Suzanne Silitch, executive director of strategic communications at VCUarts, said Estrada reached out to the department’s interim dean, Nancy Scott, with the idea for the mural in June.
Scott was moved by Estrada’s proposal and felt the mural aligned with the school’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Silitch said in an email.
“We hope that the mural will encourage students, faculty, and staff to have frank conversations and open dialogue with one another about racial injustice, ” Silitch said, “and to see that the school’s administration supports them.”