Reclaiming Richmond Ali Funk - UNIV-112-045

"Aesthetics then is more than a philosophy or theory of art and beauty; it is a way of inhabiting space, a particular location, a way of looking and becoming." - bell hooks, An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional.

bell hooks suggests that art bears a political and even spatial quality. This is exactly what comes to mind when examining the works of painter and sculptor Kehinde Wiley, particularly “Willem van Heythuysen” and “Rumors of War,” which the Virginia Museum of Fine Art displays. But aesthetics is not limited to art. The graffiti-covered Robert E. Lee Memorial central to Marcus-David Peters Circle in Richmond, Virginia reminds onlookers that Monument Avenue should not be a place weaponized to oppress. Together, Kehinde Wiley's painting, “Willem van Heythuysen," his sculpture, "Rumors of War," and Marcus-David Peters Circle act to inhabit and reclaim the spaces that were once figuratively or literally barred from Black Americans. (Photo above) People visit the renamed Marcus-David Peters circle, around the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. Photo by Julia Rendleman/juliarendleman.com.

The South Great Hall in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is devoted to “Maria, Lady Broughton” by Rococo painter Joshua Reynolds, a representation of power and privilege, and other seventeenth century European art. On one wall of the South Great Hall hangs Kehinde Wiley’s 2006 painting, “Willem van Heythuysen." Kehinde Wiley is Nigerian American, not European, and like him, the subject of his painting is Black. Why should this American painting of a Black man in street clothes be displayed here in a European art exhibit? (Photo above) Joshua Reynolds and Kehinde Wiley – a spectacular combination! Photo by A Scholarly Skater Contributor/A Scholarly Skater.

Even today, Black artists are fighting for recognition inside museums.

Displaying Kehinde Wiley’s “Willem van Heythuysen” inside the South Great Hall at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts represents an acknowledgement of the discrimination faced by African American creators and beckons them into a space their work belongs but is seldom seen. The entire European art exhibit takes on a new meaning when presented with this painting: Black Americans’ place in history cannot be ignored. (Left) Willem van Heythuysen. Photo by Katherine Wetzel/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is another Kehinde Wiley piece, “Rumors of War,” named after the Biblical verse Matthew 24:6. “Rumors of War” was modelled after the J.E.B. Stuart Monument that once sat at the head of Monument Avenue. The J.E.B. Stuart Monument was unveiled in 1907 as tribute to James Ewell Brown, a Confederate officer, and was defaced and removed from its pedestal in 2020.

Crews attach straps to the statue Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart on Monument Avenue, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, in Richmond, Va. The statue is one of several that will be removed by the city as part of the Black Lives Matter reaction. Photo by Steve Helber/WSLS 10 News.

The J.E.B. Stuart Monument as well as the other statues on Monument Avenue have long been a point of contention among Richmond citizens. As the debate carried on, Wiley proceeded with his own plan to counter the implications of Monument Avenue, “Rumors of War.” While “Willem van Heythuysen” fills a single hall, “Rumors of War” loomed throughout not only the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts exterior but the J.E.B. Stuart Monument as well, carving additional space for the Black community. (Left) Sculpture Created by Kehinde Wiley for VMFA. Photo by Travis Fullerton/Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

"I cannot go on Monument Ave. and visit a white girl for fear of being ‘lynched’ or beaten up or arrested or electrocuted.” - Black citizen Robert Leon Bacon to Virginia governor, Thomas B. Stanley, in 1955.

The mentioning of Confederate memorials often accompanied newspaper advertisements for lots along Monument Avenue, luring potential buyers with the promise of a home overseeing Robert E. Lee. Real estate companies promised “no lots can ever be sold or rented in MONUMENT AVENUE PARK to any person of African descent.” The Robert E. Lee Memorial and other monuments stood like gargoyles warding off African Americans looking to purchase property. (Photo above) Aerial view – 1812 at center of photo. Photo by Patrick Sullivan/ReRVA.

In 2020, the grass around the Robert E. Lee Memorial became the site of frequent “Black Lives Matter” protests and demonstrations. It was informally named MDP Circle, or Marcus-David Peters Circle by the Richmond Community in June 2020 in honor of Marcus-David Peters, a teacher and VCU graduate shot by police during a mental health crisis. Marcus-David Peters Circle forces onlookers to face Monument Avenue and all the dark and oppressive history it symbolizes. African Americans have reinstated themselves and their pasts where they were once been banned from residing. (Photo above) A large group of demonstrators gather around the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond on June 2, 2020, as the nation exploded in protests over the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Steve Helber/AP.

By uncovering Blackness in the places it has been buried, “Willem van Heythuysen,” “Rumors of War,” and Marcus-David Peters Circle return these sanctuaries to Black Americans. Kehinde Wiley understood the larger purpose of “Willem van Heythuysen” and “Rumors of War.” So must have the creators of Marcus-David Peters Circle as they doused the Robert E. Lee Memorial in color. Reaching outside of themselves and permeating the air around them, these works are catalysts of change, a step toward a more accessible, inclusive Richmond. (Left) The Robert E. Lee monument on July 24, with projections by Dustin Klein and Alex Criqui, at the center of what is now being called Marcus-David Peters Circle. Photo by Brian Palmer/Reveal News.

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Ali Funk


© 2021 Ali Funk. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.