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Danny Lyon (American, born 1942), A Toddle House in Atlanta is occupied during a sit-in when the SNCC staff and supporters take a break from a conference to demonstrate, 1963 (printed later), gelatin silver on paper, 11 x 14 inches, Joel and Lila Harnett Print Study Center, University of Richmond Museums, H2019.21.39, Gift of Steve and Linda Lee ¿ Danny Lyon
Exhibition
Jan 19, 2021
throughMay 23, 2021

Action & Reaction: Looking at the Art of Social Justice

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Due to the University's response to Covid-19, the University of Richmond Museums' are only open to the campus community at this time. 

 

The University of Richmond Museums opens Action & Reaction: Looking at the Art of Social Justice, on view in the Harnett Museum of Art, January 19 through May 23, 2021. The topics of social justice, resistance, and solidarity, are addressed by the artworks, by the artists themselves and how they are present in their work, and by the viewers. Included in the exhibition are more than 80 historical and modern artworks from the University Museums’ permanent collection, with highlighted presentations of the work of Judy Chicago, Avel de Knight, and Danny Lyon. A special section in the exhibition addresses social justice today and features contemporary work by Miles Wilson, UR ’20, freelance photographer, and Sandy Williams, IV, interdisciplinary artist and part-time instructor of art, University of Richmond.

The exhibition is divided into four groupings, and each grouping presents a small selection of work by “anchor” artists that exemplify four themes: 

  • nationality and patriotism / Avel de Knight
  • protest, civil rights, and activism / Danny Lyon
  • personal activism, highlighting gender and identity / Judy Chicago
  • social justice in contemporary society / Miles Wilson and Sandy Williams, IV

Additional artworks by other artists supplement each section, further highlighting and exploring the themes.

About the Exhibition

The themes of nationality and patriotism are highlighted by African American artist Avel de Knight (1921-1995). The artwork featured is a series of illustrations informed by the 1870 book Army Life in the Black Regiment by the New England abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The book recounts Higginson’s experience as a white leader of the Union’s first regiment of escaped slaves during the Civil War. Higginson portrayed Black soldiers as brave, committed, gentle, and deeply religious – qualities also captured in de Knight’s images, which were never published. Created almost 100 years after the book was written, de Knight’s powerful images were created during a time of great civil unrest in America.

Photographs by Danny Lyon (American, born 1942) exemplify the themes of protest, civil rights, and activism. During the summer of 1962, Lyon hitchhiked with camera in hand to join the Civil Rights Movement in Cairo, Illinois to sign with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as their first staff photographer (1962-1964). During that time, Lyon produced images of the reality of Jim Crow South that members of the white media were avoiding. Looking back on this time, Lyon said, “because I was white, I could photograph things no Black person could.”

The themes of personal activism are presented alongside the work of Judy Chicago (American, born 1939). Chicago is considered one of the most prominent leaders of the Feminist Art Movement. Featured in the exhibition is “Retrospective in a Box” which is a 2008-2013 project that reflects on Chicago’s career as an artist, with each of the lithographs representing a significant period in the development of her work. As diverse as her themes may be, this group of works gives the viewer a glimpse into the challenges that Chicago faced when a “woman artist” was not accepted by the art establishment much less by popular culture.

The work of artists Miles Wilson and Sandy Williams, IV, is featured in a special section highlighting social justice today. Miles Wilson is a multidisciplinary artist, freelance photographer, designer, and creative architect currently based in Richmond, VA. He recently received his B.S. in Business Administration with concentration in marketing, University of Richmond, with a double major in Visual and Media Arts Practice. His photographic work was published in The New York Times (June 11, 2020) representing RVA Magazine, in the “Five Art Accounts to Follow on Instagram Now” feature.

In discussing his recent photography focused on the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Wilson says, “when making images, especially when working in black and white, my main concern is finding a powerful subject that can speak to the larger theme of the work being made. Though this theme is flexible to some degree and takes shape as the photos are being made, during the protests I found myself focusing on the “individual” and capturing them in such a way that could be reflective of the BLM movement as a whole.”

An artist and filmmaker based in NYC and Richmond, VA, Williams is currently a part-time instructor of art (sculpture), University of Richmond. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a BFA, and from VCUarts with an MFA in Sculpture + Extended Media. He has had solo shows and exhibitions at several galleries and venues in Virginia, and most recently at Socrates Sculpture Park (New York), and Guadalajara 90210 (Mexico City).

Williams states that his interest is in “making work that opens up different conversations and internal dialogues through the many ‘views’ of a ‘thing’ that art might offer. It is often as much about pointing to “the thing” (the clothes or the monuments), or making mirrors to help us see ourselves, as it is about making new things to ‘try on’ in these reflections. … As an educator, I’m interested in recalling these endangered histories through art, which has the ability to add to and become the record.”

Organized by the University of Richmond Museums, the exhibition was curated by Richard Waller, Executive Director, N. Elizabeth Schlatter, Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions, and Martha Wright, Assistant Curator of Academic and Public Engagement, University Museums. Research assistance was provided by Sophie McClellan, ’23, art history and leadership double major, and the 2020 Curatorial Assistant, University Museums. The exhibition is made possible in part with support from the University of Richmond’s Cultural Affairs Committee and with funds from the Louis S. Booth Arts Fund.

Programming

UR Museums are currently working to provide programs and resources online to support and supplement the exhibition.  We hope to offer programs featuring artists, curators, and musicians.  Keep connected at museums.richmond.edu for the most up-to-date information about programs, exhibitions, and announcements.

Virtual Tour of the Exhibition
You can virtually walk through the Action & Reaction exhibition to view more than 80 historical and modern artworks from the University Museums’ permanent collection, with highlighted presentations of the work of Judy Chicago, Avel de Knight, and Danny Lyon.
Interview with artist Miles Wilson

Interview with artist Miles Wilson, conducted via email by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions, University Museums, December, 2020. All responses (c) Miles Wilson

 

Q) When you set about photographing Black Lives Matter protests, did you have a sense of what you wanted to capture? Were there some visual themes (i.e. “a lone figure in the crowd"), emotions, or settings that you found especially compelling or surprising? 

A) Originally I had no serious intentions of photographing the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests; I was more interested in participating in a movement that was speaking to me. Naturally though, my camera came with me, just in case. While protesting I couldn’t help but notice the diversity of people and backgrounds represented. Among the strife, grief, anger, pain, etc., there seemed to be an overarching sense of “humanity” in the moment that really caught my attention. 

Depending on the news organization one watches you’d think that every protest had the sole purpose of destroying property and causing damage just for the hell of it. For that reason I felt an obligation to portray the movement from a firsthand perspective, capturing the humanity that had first caught my attention.

 

Q) Why did you use black-and-white film for these works? There is a certain “aesthetic of protest,” but without going down a rabbit-hole of critical theory, what do you think about when you make choices like, color of the image, size of the printed image, cropping, etc.? Do you have an idea of what you hope viewers will think or feel when they see your work?

A) To be honest, the black-and-white film I used was actually just what I had at my immediate disposal. My high school photography teacher gave me roughly 200 feet of film my sophomore year and it had been sitting ever since. [Thanks Mrs. Inge.] When this movement really took off and the widespread protests began I figured this was the opportunity to put it to use. The decision to go with black-and-white film for this project also felt natural due to the fact that it has the ability to blur the lines between past and present. The fight for racial equality that is happening now, is the exact same fight that started in the 60s with the Civil Rights Movement and has continued to today. A majority of the images we see of that time are shot in black-and-white, so I think the general consensus ends up being that “that was the past and things must have changed since then.”

When making images, especially when working in black and white, my main concern is finding a powerful subject that can speak to the larger theme. Though this theme is flexible to some degree and takes shape as the photos are being made, during the protests I found myself focusing on the “individual” and capturing them in such a way that could be reflective of the BLM movement as a whole.

When it came to making physical prints of the photos, I felt that it was necessary to make them quite large. As a majority of photographs today live on and are consumed through a phone screen that is no bigger than the palm of your hand, I wanted to make prints that were the exact opposite of that. The large images are meant to put the viewer in the scene, in a position where it feels as if they are taking part in the movement, instead of just being a voyeur, which kind of goes back to the idea of deconstructing the ways in which these movements are presented by the 24-hour news cycle and large media corporations.

 

Q) Normally I’d ask, “how did the events of 2020 (e.g. pandemic, BLM protests, elections) impact your artistic practice?” But these events seemed to be a dominant focus of your practice this year, at least in terms of the work on view in our exhibition. Do you think the subjects you covered and the protests you engaged with have changed your thoughts about where you will focus your creative energy and literally your “lens” in the near future? 

A) The pandemic and the socio-political climate of today have greatly informed the work I have found myself making and I think that will continue to evolve as I make new work. I'm not sure if the events of the year have changed the focus of my work per se, but instead I think that they have expanded the scope to which I am looking and approaching my understanding of black experiences in spaces that were not created with them in mind. My previous work, “Mistyped Foundations,” for example, focused on my experience as a young black man in the suburbs and the long history that made the suburbs feel somewhat inaccessible to nonwhite individuals.

 

Q) A complicated question: do you consider yourself a witness to history or a shaper of history? 

A) In order to “shape history” you have to be a witness, so first and foremost I think I am a witness. That said the idea that history is written by the victors or those in power is very true and thus history to this point has been shaped, molded, and remolded to reflect a specific narrative that benefits those in power. With this in mind I think that I ultimately become a shaper of history by witnessing and documenting it through a lens that is often discounted or simply overlooked, that of an African American in the U.S.

 

Q) Historical imagery, including advertising, photography, and urban planning and architectural documents, have been important in your practice, especially in terms of examining systemic racism and the built environment. In light of the previous questions, how does your recent use of photography as exemplified in the works in this exhibition connect with how you conceive of and work with historical imagery in your art? 

A)  As kind of mentioned before, shooting the work on black-and-white film was somewhat of a visual cue to the past. With “States of Union” I’m poking a bit of fun at the State of the Union Address and the fact that the United States has forever advertised itself to the rest of the world as the “greatest country on earth,” “the land of the free and home of the brave.” While this may have held true at some point in time (which I think is a debatable topic), the events of 2020 and really the last four years of Trump's presidency have brought to light just how false those “slogans” were.

 

Q) One of your most powerful images is from the tear-gassing episode at the Marcus-David Peters Circle this past summer. Do you have any thoughts on how that Circle has become a reclaimed space? And do you have ideas about how communities can use these types of spaces in the near future? 

A) I love what has happened there. When the original talks of the statues coming down began circulating my immediate thought was that the status themselves should be removed, but that the concrete bases upon which they stood should be left as they are and become a “free use” public space of sorts. I think that it’s important to keep these spaces alive for their historical significance, even if that history is rather ugly. But allowing these historical sites to take on a new life as defined by the community in which it serves is just as important if not more so. So I’m glad to see that the Richmond community has really embraced the idea of making Marcus-David Peters Circle theirs, using it for everything from BBQ’s to public art events to just a gathering space for the community. As for how these spaces can be used in the near future, I think that should be left up to the community. MDP Circle has proven that there doesn't really need to be a “set plan” for what should happen, instead it can emerge and grow organically to meet the needs of the community in which it exists.

Interview with artist Sandy Williams, IV

Interview with artist Sandy Williams, IV, conducted via email by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions, University Museums, December, 2020. All responses (c) Sandy Williams, IV.

 

Q) A lot of your work in this exhibition relates to symbolism, representation, and subjective interpretation, such as, how someone views a “thing” (e.g. a Civil War hero monument or a historic U.S. “buffalo nickel”). Likewise, with the piece "UNARMED”, the body is itself suspicious, depending upon the presumptions of a viewer. Are you questioning the construction of these assumptions/interpretations or are you trying to create new ones? 

A) I try to make work that opens up different conversations and internal dialogues through the many “views” of a “thing” that art might offer. It is often as much about pointing to “the thing” (the clothes or the monuments), or making mirrors to help us see ourselves, as it is about making new things to “try on’’ in these reflections.  The work is illumination, transformation, and transparency. Bringing light to the histories that have been denied or erased in official and popular memory, and helping to visualize emancipation through the work of democratic collective action.

 

Q) The “Wax Monuments” are beautiful and dynamic activist statements. When you lit these in front of the monuments themselves, how did people around you react? 

A) When I lit a candle in front of the Thomas Jefferson statue at UVA in Charlottesville, there were not many people around besides a 24-hour-security guard who was stationed there after other monuments around town had been tagged. The guard approved of my project after I explained what I was doing.

At the Lincoln Memorial in D.C., an officer told me that if I melted a candle on the marble steps I would be considered a demonstrator and arrested. He told me that I could probably get away with it without bothering anyone down beyond the stairs, closer to the reflection pool, where we did end up melting the candle. There were a lot of people around, and we definitely attracted some stares, but no one said anything to us.

I melted a Lee candle in front of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond a few days after the initial summer uprisings, and so there were a lot of people there too. A few people asked me what I was doing, but most had their own thing going on. Whether they were tagging the monument, climbing it, or taking pictures together, there was an intensity in the air that everyone seemed tuned in to, like a shared awareness of everything that was going on — both there and around the world. It was a mix of excitement and anxiety.

 

Q) Does the context of this past summer, with Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of so many Civil War era monuments, change the impact of your “Wax Monuments”? 

A) The protests and the removal of the monuments charge the context that I am working from, and continue to add to the histories that I am commenting on. I always meant for the "Wax Monument" series  to grow, but these developments impact what direction that growth is happening towards.

 

Q) How did the events of 2020 (e.g. pandemic, BLM protests, elections) impact your artistic practice? 

A) I am still adapting to the world as it is now, and trying to keep up, or maybe slow down, and keep pace —
forming and melting — with a new time and rhythm.

 

Q) Speaking of monuments, do you have thoughts about how Richmond's Marcus-David Peters Circle, which as of this interview still features the Robert E. Lee Monument, has become a reclaimed space? And do you have ideas about how communities can use these types of spaces in the near future? 

A) Reclaiming that space and making it the Marcus-Davis Peters Circle brought life to that area, which went from being a place where you never really saw anyone doing anything, to a space filled with energy. I would be interested in seeing the city sustain more spaces in our communities where people are trusted and encouraged to work together to decide what a space should look like and the possibilities of its use.

 

Q) What is the significance of conflating U.S. currency with a composite American Indian portrait and buffalo, in the form of the “Buffalo Nickel” and why did you decide to address this as a subject? 

A) The “Buffalo” or “Indian Head” nickel was the official U.S. five-cent coin from 1913 - 1938. My piece “Don’t Take Any Wooden Nickels” was inspired by my grandmother always telling me, “Don’t trust nobody, and don’t take any wooden nickels.” This phrase, passed down through generations, recalls the decades of compacted inflation, change, genocide, and inequity built into our country’s history and its currency — a colloquial history that is not often unpacked or appreciated as common knowledge.        

Over time, many histories are forgotten, repressed, or even rewritten. As an educator, I’m interested in recalling these endangered histories through art, which has the ability to add to and become the record. I love that my grandmother’s story will be playing right next to a Warhol print, and next to everything else in the room, because they are all important historical artifacts that deserve to be remembered equitably.

This collection of artifacts is a living archive that is on-going and still growing.

 

Q) “Time” is present as both an experience (i.e. the viewer takes time to listen and watch a dynamic piece) and as a reference in your work (i.e. a digital timer on a backpack, melted wax referring to near past, and historical narratives present throughout). How do you define/experience time yourself, or a better question may be, how would you like to experience time? Also, why do you think time is a common theme of your artistic exploration? 

A) Time stopped for me — for the first time — in high school when I was diagnosed with cancer. I fell out of sync with the rest of the world, or at least the way my friends were enjoying it (time), and had to learn a new pace for things. I had to remake myself in a lot of ways, and in those new moments I started making art. Time and memory (being remembered) have always been themes in my work.

Hector Coco Barez: Listening to Art