Who’s in a Portrait Gallery?

This summer, my toddler and I went to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) a few times when it was too hot to go to the park. As the mother of a biracial child, my feelings about representation in art are more intense than they were when I visited museums alone earlier in my life. Now, I inwardly sigh sadly at the lack of people of color portrayed in portrait galleries even as I cheerfully invite my son to identify animals and colors and other elements in the paintings and photographs. Grateful, I take note of the few works by and of people who look like me the museum curators have interspersed in the collection. Before this school year started, a special exhibit hit home for me: The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.

Reveling in hearing Handel’s music filtered through speaking and singing voices associated with protests in my hometown Biringham, Alabama, in Nadine Robinson’s “Coronation Theme: Organon”

A friend gave a glowing review of the power of the exhibit, so I didn’t read about it before visiting with my husband and toddler. I felt slightly nervous, however, about whether the region where I was born and spent my childhood and adolescence would be represented honestly. Would the exhibit do more than celebrate notable art by and about black people? Would it acknowledge the torment of living as a person of African descent in a place where slavery and discrimination were legal for centuries? I sighed in relief at the entrance to the exhibit where I heard “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching that I researched, performed, and spoke about in 2018. The installation was Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Summer Breeze (2008). It consists of video clips of Billie Holiday and Jill Scott singing the song stacked with video of a black girl playing on a swing. I knew that if the exhibit started with this hard truth expressed through this striking collage of images and sounds of black females, I would not be disappointed by the rest.

Meditating on “Strange Fruit” through Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Summer Breeze”

Walking through The Dirty South exhibit, driving by Kehinde Wiley’s sculpture Rumors of War (2019) where the VMFA faces the road Arthur Ashe Boulevard, and celebrating the removal of Confederate statues from Monument Avenue reassure me that Richmond, Virginia, can be a place where I feel a sense of belonging. Art alone cannot reconcile the socioeconomic deficits and heal the traumas caused by racism here and throughout the United States, but as a musician, I focus on listening to and creating for underrepresented voices so that others will hear and care and act.

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