Black Lives Matter art show showcases social justice dialogue

Eric Robinson, a senior communication arts student, poses for a portrait in front of his two submissions for the RVA Black Lives Matter art show. From left: “Dusk” and “Reflections.” Photo by Kaitlyn Fulmore

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer

A virtual art show organized by Richmond artists presents viewers with powerful self-portraits, experimental collages and political imagery, each demonstrating a unique take on the Black Lives Matter movement.

The fourth annual installment of the open call RVA Black Lives Matter Art Show premiered Feb. 5 with a Zoom webinar. Held entirely online, the event features more than 130 works of art from over 80 Virginia-based artists. It will remain available on the show’s website until February of next year. 

The virtual gallery is broken into six smaller categories titled Injustice in America, The Black Pastoral, Inspiration & Aspiration, Identity, In Memoriam and Black Lives Matter – Uncategorized. 

It also includes an Emerging Voices category, which encouraged young artists under 17 to participate. Within these categories, submissions that best exemplified the theme were selected by local artists and the exhibit’s curators, Emily Smith and Francis Thompson.

VCU communication arts senior Eric Robinson’s piece, “Reflections,” was selected to represent the Identity gallery.

“‘Reflections’ was very technically challenging, due to all the angles I had to take into account,” Robinson said. “I was really honored to be exhibited.”

In the self-portrait, Robinson gazes into his own eyes with his arms crossed over his torso. His dyed-blue hair adds a pop of eye-catching color. 

Despite his work chosen to represent the category, Robinson said he felt his paintings did not necessarily fit the show’s categories as he did not create them to be inherently political. 

“There wasn’t a specific narrative,” Robinson said of his painting, “Dusk,” a brown and black portrait depicting a close friend. “I just wanted to make my friends look a little more ethereal.”

Robinson said he hopes those who view his and the other artists’ work consider the diverse narratives presented in the show.

“Everyone being exhibited has a different perspective centered around Blackness,” Robinson said. “Whether it be an outside looking in, a time-capsule, someone’s experiences or even just what it means to be Black and alive.”

The annual show began in 2017 after a group of Richmond artists, distraught with the results of the 2016 presidential election, felt the need to create a show centered around Black Lives Matter, according to the exhibit’s website.

“It’s my reaction to the long simmering racial tensions and violence toward African Americans.” — Mona Dworkin, sculptor and mixed media artist

Richard Bargdill, an associate professor of psychology at VCU and chair of the art show’s steering committee, said planning for this year’s event began last July after he reached out to previous organizers. 

Following an initial agreement that the event would have to be moved online due to COVID-19, the steering committee held weekly meetings from August until the opening night of the event.

“It was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to happen unless we jumped on the ball right then,” Bargdill said. “And it was difficult, especially for an organization that really doesn’t have any infrastructure.”

Bargdill said advertising for past exhibitions relied heavily on physical means — through fliers and word of mouth. This year, the steering committee utilized personal connections and social media to spread the word, he said.

“We had people from very different worlds, including myself in psychology, that allowed us to reach out into different pools and gather partners,” Bargdill said. “It was sort of a true networking type of opportunity.”

Bargdill also submitted two paintings to the show, both depicting famous photographs of female protesters. “Threat to Order” is based on a 2016 viral photograph of protester Ieshia Evans, standing stoically as police seize her during a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The exhibit features “Threat to Order” by Richard Bargdill, which depicts a 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Photo courtesy of Richard Bargdill

His other painting, “Remove that Flag,” depicts activist Bree Newsome Bass physically removing the Confederate flag that flew in front of the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia. The professor said he was inspired to create more politically themed art following the 2015 police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died after being denied medical care while suffering a spinal injury in a police vehicle. Following his death and the subsequent acquittal of the six police officers involved, protests broke out in the city. 

“I realized after those incidents in Baltimore that my art could be doing a little bit more,” Bargdill said. “And then, I started to make some pieces based on the uprising there.”

In lieu of an in-person opening night reception, this year’s RVA BLM Art Show opened with a Zoom webinar, hosted by actress Daphne Maxwell Reid. During the webinar, artists presented a two-minute speech about their work.

“That’s rare in most gallery shows,” Bargdill said. “This is sort of a unique opportunity that Zoom allowed us to do and include folks that are all over the country.”

Holding the show virtually had some advantages, Bargdill said. With unlimited space and no travel or shipping costs for artists, a wider range of submissions was possible.

“There are some great advantages to doing it this way,” Bargdill said. “And we were very pleased with the outcome after eight to nine months of work.”

Mona Dworkin, a Richmond sculptor and mixed media artist, said she preferred in-person shows, but thought the online format was successful.

Richmond artist Mona Dworkin works on her painting “Change Comes Slowly” in her art studio. Photo courtesy of Tony Giammarino

Her mixed media pieces, “Their Unresolved Past” and “Race” were created using clippings from magazines and paint to represent race relations and violence toward Black people.

“It’s my reaction to the long simmering racial tensions and violence toward African Americans,” Dworkin said. “It’s all of what the last hundreds of years have been about. But 2020 was particularly stirring.”

Like Robinson, Dworkin believes that the inclusive nature of the show allowed for a broad range of artists to participate. 

“I think the event was pretty amazing,” Dworkin said. “I think seeing different artists’ expressions of Black Lives Matter is really important.”

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