Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer
When Richmond became the capital of the Confederacy in 1861, it became known for its ties to separatist beliefs that relegated Black people to slavery. The legacy has carried through time, but a new exhibition at Gallery5 seeks to reframe the city’s image.
“It was something that was a thing that we were known by throughout the country and the world,” said local artist and co-curator Noah Scalin. “If anybody knew of Richmond, they probably had heard of it in context of the Civil War.”
Gallery5’s latest art show “Richmond Capital of _____?” invites artists and guests to rethink what the city should be known for, such as vibrant street art to a diverse population, rather than Confederate statues.
“To me, it feels like everybody kind of wants Richmond to be known for our diversity, our natural environment and our willingness to creatively change when we need to,” said Prabir Mehta, the chairman of Gallery5’s board of directors.
The show opened April 2 and will be available until May 6. It is part of the gallery’s monthly online exhibit initiative, which features collections of artwork around varying themes, such as the great outdoors, holiday monsters and a year of separation. Participation in the initiative is open to the public.
“We have a very beautifully talented community here in Richmond, and because of the lockdown and because of COVID implications we decided to open a virtual gallery in addition to our physical one,” Mehta said. “We’ve been letting the community help us populate our website with artwork.”
The current exhibit was curated by Scalin and Marc Cheatham, a community activist and former member of the Gallery5 board. While the exhibit primarily operates on Gallery5’s website, select pieces are available for viewing in the gallery’s physical space.
The art featured in the exhibition follows several themes: the future, diversity, creativity and Richmond’s natural environment. Many pieces hint at racial justice protests that occured over the summer and Richmond’s vast art scene.
“You can’t stop with the activism of the moment, you can’t stop with taking down the things of the past; you have to continue to replace them with better things of the future. What are those things?” — Noah Scalin, co-curator of the exhibit
Scalin and Cheatham invited artists to create the pieces currently available for in-person viewing. One such piece, “Guerilla Marketing,” was created by Richmond artists Nico Cathcart and Silly Genius.
The piece depicts an individual holding a can of spray paint against a graffiti-covered wall. Cathcart painted the portrait, while Silly Genius added the graffiti. The image celebrates the “graffiti culture” of Richmond, Scalin said.
Another piece included is “Migration Flow (Cuban Son)” by Alfonso Pérez Acosta. It features a Cuban American couple — one a first-generation immigrant and the other Richmond-born — dancing with their limbs surrounded by text such as “I am not me without dance” and “dancing is everything to me.” The piece celebrates the diversity of Richmond’s population and the city’s relationship with immigration.
To be featured in the virtual gallery, an online submission form was available until March 29. According to Cheatham, there were “no wrong answers,” provided that the art refrained from looking positively toward what he referred to as “the old south.”
A photograph titled “It’s Educational” by Chris Fessler is featured online. It shows the side of a brick building that simply reads “high school.” The pictured building is Mechanicsville High School, formerly known as Lee-Davis High School.
In his statement to accompany the photo, Fessler wrote that it “presents a vague past, and banal present waiting for you to fill in the blanks and start storytelling its future.”
The image was captured during the transitional phase of the school’s name change, which was prompted by the series of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020. A formal vote and decision to rename the high school came from the Hanover County School Board on Oct. 13. The high school was previously named for Robert E. Lee, a prominent Confederate general, and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
“Seeing the energy over the summer … really showed us that we have so much more to do in Richmond to combat white supremacy and place everyone in Richmond on a more equal path,” Cheatham said in an email.
Scalin and Cheatham previously collaborated on a project with Gallery5 called “The New Legacy.” The 2017 project sought to imagine Richmond as devoid of Confederate statues, and it inspired the foundation of “Richmond Capital of _____?”
“The end goal was never just to take our statues down but to transform our community,” Scalin said. “You can’t stop with the activism of the moment, you can’t stop with taking down the things of the past, you have to continue to replace them with better things of the future. What are those things?”
Gallery5 is located at 200 W. Marshall St. and open to the public Friday and Saturday from 5 – 10 p.m.