Two exhibits at VMFA spark conversations on race

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VMFA file photo (8News)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A new exhibit is just opening up at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, and it’s very timely. It’s one of two exhibits there by African Americans that deal with race in America, and 8News got a look at both.

People only have just over a month to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit, A New Republic.

The VMFA’s Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Dr. Sarah Eckhardt, says many of his paintings are very large.

“He has an enormous vision in both the scope of the number of works he’s produced, but also the scale of the actual paintings,” Dr. Eckhardt said.

Wiley takes black people, mostly with hip-hop style clothes, and puts them into historic European art. As he describes, many of the people in his paintings are random people he found.

“Stopping strangers in the streets, people who were minding their own business, trying to get to work, and saying ‘look at my work and model for me.’ Most people said no… that is hard to pull that off in urban areas,” Wiley said, jokingly.

Some of his art may look funny and interesting sometimes, especially when you see his work next to the original, but he’s also making a statement about how we view black people.

“A lot of times when you look at the original source painting that he used and then you see what he did with that, you notice what a sense of humor he has, and the wit that he introduces — even though he’s also dealing with some serious subjects,” Eckhardt said. “His work provokes questions about power. Who has the power to frame an image? How are people represented? Do they represent themselves? How are images framed? and who does the framing?”

Eckhardt also said his work is provoking some serious and powerful conversations.

If you visit the exhibit, you might even notice a famous face. There is a portrait of Michael Jackson that’s very popular.

Eckhardt said it’s the last commissioned portrait of Michael Jackson, and in fact, it wasn’t even completed before Jackson died.

Once you leave the exhibit, there’s an art lounge where you can see where the inspiration for parts of Wiley’s work can be found in other parts of the museum.

Just upstairs, there’s another exhibit dealing with race; this one, through the eyes of a lens.

Photographer Gordon Parks, the first black photographer at Life magazine, shares a view of being black in America during the civil rights era.

“Gordon Parks was working in a moment when there were not a lot of positive images of African Americans in the media, so his role at Life Magazine was a really important one in which he was putting forward really dignified beautiful images of African Americans,” Parks said.

One side of the exhibit was curated at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. It was an article by Parks in 1950 where he was tasked with writing a story on school segregation, 4 years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

He wanted to make it personal, so he went to his hometown to find his own classmates and see where they ended up. He not only took the pictures for the article, but he wrote it as well.

“Typically photographers at Life Magazine would take the photographed and someone else would write the story, but in this case, it was such a personal story he decided to write it himself and it was a really powerful piece,” Eckhardt said.

But that article never got published in Life and Eckhardt said it’s still a mystery as to why.

The other part of the Parks exhibit was curated at the VMFA, and it features photographs that correspond with 5 other Life stories Parks did that actually were published. He also wrote the articles for 3 of those articles as well.

“It was at the heights of the civil rights movement and it was really a moment I think where he understood that he needed to frame the story,” Eckahrdt said.

She said Parks had a huge role during the civil rights movement since Life magazine had a readership of about 23 million people, mostly white.

“He was somewhat of a translator and he was willing to speak to the black experience,” Eckhardt said. “He was very committed to social justice so he has a very bold voice, but he also had a very nuanced and objective voice. It was tremendously respected by the Life audience.”

Several of Parks’ images have people stopping and staring as they notice similarities to images today. One picture, in particular, features a black man in the 1960’s holding a sign that says “police brutality must go.”

It’s eerily similar to many protest signs we see today.

“Unfortunately, I think some of the stories that he was reporting on in the 1960’s are still very relevant, these are issues we’re still dealing with, so I think it’s a helpful exhibition in that it gives people a little bit of historical distance both to understand the roots of some of these issues, but also to see it through Gordon Parks’ lens,” Eckhardt said. “His voice is still one that is very much about being a bridge maker and seeking change but also trying to increase understanding and reconciliation.”

The Gordon Parks exhibit just opened up and people have plenty of time to stop by to see his photographs.

The Kehinde Wiley exhibit runs until September 5th.

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