Upon entering the first floor of Harrison House, visitors to the Department of African American Studies were greeted by a striking painting of a beautiful, naked woman during the Department’s October pop-up gallery. The woman’s head is tilted back in an expression of ecstasy, her arms bound to her sides by red ropes as disembodied hands seem to caress her brown skin, and all around the woman’s body petals of brilliantly blue flowers swirl, as if they were caught in a sudden gust of wind.
The painting, titled “Deflower,” was created by painting a printmaking student Shalina Mitchell, and was displayed in Harrison House as part of a pop-up art gallery hosted by the African American Studies Department. The gallery, which was originally organized as part of the department’s Fall Open House, featured work by black student artists.
“A lot of the students who aren’t necessarily VCUArts students are artists, and I think it’s really important for them to be able to communicate their thoughts about identity, their experiences, and their personal narratives through art practices, and I think it’s important for us as a department to support those ventures,” said Brandi Summers, Ph.D., assistant professor of African American Studies at VCU.
Summers, who organized both the department’s open house and pop-up gallery, says she saw a need for black students to gain exposure to African American artists, and art that addresses issues of race and diversity, after she taught a course in the VCUArts Department.
Once an ordinary hallway, the first floor of Harrison House was temporarily transformed into a space for black artists at VCU to share and sell their work during the month of October. The mediums and styles on display varied wildly, from contemporary cartoons to classical paintings, with delicate clay statues occupying the same space as artistically embellished t-shirts and hoodies.
Some pieces make political statements, like the American flag whose 50 stars have been replaced with the raised fist of Black Power, that craft and material studies student Alana Edwards made out of a typical fabric worn by slaves called osnaburg.
“It symbolizes how I think that America was built on slavery and that, especially now, the 50 states aren’t really unified,” Edwards said.
Malik Radford, a kinetic imaging and communication arts senior, used his space in Harrison House to explore how representations of African Americans in pop culture have changed over time. Using marker and pen, Radford created a visual timeline beginning with loony-tunes style caricatures of black male stereotypes and ending with a modern, vibrant scene of night life in African American culture.
“I wanted to be able to tell a story or at least kind of create a world for people to just think about what’s happening,” said Radford. “As I continue to grow as an artist, student and person, I realized that I want my work to make an impact on people on a deeper level.”
Radford’s work is inspired by his love of cartoons and his experiences in contemporary black culture. He used to see himself solely as an artist, but after taking a couple African American Studies courses, Radford says he learned the importance of embracing his identity through artistic expression.
“I do consider myself a black artist, just because representation matters. I want to be able to influence others who may have the same passions or goals as me, and I just want to show them that it’s possible to do whatever you want to do, regardless of the circumstances that may come with being black or being a minority,” Radford said.
View a gallery of images from the exhibition on Facebook.
Article by Megan Schiffres