VMFA team curates DePillars retrospective

Double Vision to close June 3 at Richmond’s Black History Museum

An exhibition scheduled to close early next month reflects the growing interaction between the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia.

Even the focus of the exhibition—a lifetime retrospective of paintings by the late Murry DePillars (American, 1938-2008)—provides another bridge among the state’s leading cultural and educational institutions. DePillars served as dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of the Arts, which grew to national prominence under his leadership; he retired in 1995 after nearly 20 years as head of the school.

Murry DePillars: Double Vision presents works organized around his dual roles as artist and educator.  The title—a riff on those responsibilities—is a key to the entire exhibition: It reflects art historian Michael Harris’s observation that African Americans artists look back to Africa for inspiration while examining contemporary life in America.

“This exhibition rewards extended looking,” said Richard B. Woodward, VMFA’s Curator of African Art. He co-curated the show with Ashley Duhrkoop, VMFA Curatorial Assistant for African Art, with a focus on modern and contemporary works. Their unique curatorial experiences brought together a “wonderful mixture” of vantage points in developing the exhibition.

“When you walk in and see the paintings, you’re struck by the brilliance of the geometrical intricacies and vibrant colors,” Woodward added. “Then you continue looking and you see other images drawn from African and American sources woven into the visual latticework of this geometry.” As Duhrkoop penned in the introductory text, “take your time, look twice.”

Nothing, perhaps, is exactly as it first appears.

“At the Black History Museum, our mission is to share stories that inspire,” said Adele Johnson, interim executive director. She noted that while the permanent exhibition covers the historic eras of emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and civil rights, the museum is also honored to promote more recent history makers, such as Murry DePillars.

“His contributions, both as an educator and artist, help to inform patrons of the many ways our history impacts our present and future,” she said. “I have been pleased to see visitors stare at his work for long periods of time and then delighted to hear the subsequent questions or conversation.  Double Vision has created an opportunity for learning and exchange that supports our goal of integrating black history with America’s history.”


About the exhibition

The 37 works are selected from the artist’s estate. Through a handful of galleries, visitors see the evolution of his style, from works on paper and drawings to outsized paintings that assemble smaller segments such as quilt blocks—many featuring Adinkra, symbols that represent African proverbs.

DePillars’ works span themes from ancestral Africa, the period of American slavery, and more recent events around the globe, including the U.S. civil rights movement and apartheid in South Africa. DePillars was an active member of AfriCOBRA, which stands for the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, a Chicago-based collective of African-American artists active since the 1960s. There’s also a painting that incorporates an image of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, a nod to DePillars’ interest and commitment to growing the region’s jazz scene.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to see the works of a significant artist who produced spellbinding, deeply researched works of art that are rich in content and very layered in meaning,” Woodward added.

A display case at the entrance to the exhibition contains the briefcase packed with small canvases, brushes and paints that DePillars carried with him on frequent trips as VCU dean. Even in the busiest of airports,  DePillars would pull out a canvas, set it atop the briefcase and begin. The exhibition features two unfinished paintings from the “Briefcase Series.”

Scheduled to close June 3, Double Vision is the first original exhibition organized by the Black History Museum for its new facility at the historic Leigh Street Armory. For more information, contact the Black History Museum, 122 W. Leigh Street, at 804.780.9093.


About the VMFA and Black History Museum partnership

The Black History Museum, which first opened its doors in 1991 in Jackson Ward, is a VMFA partner organization, making it eligible for consultation by VMFA staff. The history museum’s current Board of Directors includes two VMFA leaders: Woodward and Kimberly Wilson, Deputy Director for Human Resources, Volunteers and Community Service. Both have helped the Black History Museum in such areas as building partnerships across the region; developing relevant programming, such as art exhibitions; and aiding organizational growth. Serving on the boards of both museums is Dr. Monroe E. Harris Jr.

The VMFA permanent collection includes DePillars’ 1997 painting, From the Mississippi Delta, currently on view in the Mid to Late 20th Century gallery.