Continue the Conversation: VMFA and African American Art and Heritage

 Jamel Shabazz

Rude Boy From Back in the Days, 1980, Jamel Shabazz

As visitors enjoy the final days of VMFA’s powerful companion shows, Posing Beauty in African American Culture and Identity Shifts, they will find a panel in the galleries inviting them to “Continue the Conversation” by visiting two additional exhibitions. Those smaller unticketed shows, States of Change in Africa and Signs of Protest: Photographs from the Civil Rights Era, prove equally compelling in their exploration of African and African American Identity. Viewed independently or together, these exhibitions have indeed generated plenty of discussion. And there is still time to see Signs of Protest, which remains on view until September 7.

Long after these temporary shows have ended, meaningful conversation will no doubt continue. The reason? With the exception of the loan show, Posing Beauty, the art featured in this constellation of special exhibitions comes from VMFA’s own collection. Sharp-eyed visitors have noted accession numbers on labels that indicate that most of these outstanding photographs, paintings, sculptures, and works on paper have entered the museum’s holdings since 2000 — and many within the past two years. With energetic focus, the museum has expanded its collection in quantity and quality.

Alongside visits to its world-class African art collection, visitors can stroll VMFA’s historic American art galleries to see important work by artists such as Robert S. Duncanson, Thomas Day, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Edward Bannister, Leslie G. Bolling, Aaron Douglas, Beauford Delaney, Jacob Lawrence, and Elizabeth Catlett. Modern and contemporary works are plentiful (many showcased in the recent exhibitions) by artists including James Vanderzee, iona roseal brown, Lewis Draper, Gordon Parks, Martin Puryear, A. B. Jackson, Norman Lewis, Alison Saar, Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, Barkley Hendricks, Faith Ringgold, and Carrie Mae Weems. There are dozens more.

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities now lists VMFA as a significant African American Heritage site. The honor is well-deserved.

–Elizabeth O’Leary, retired VMFA associate curator of American art