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Black History Museum Exhibit Examines 400 Year Fight for Freedom

(From left) Adele Johnson, the director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, with guest curator Alvin Lester and quilter Mary Lauderdale.
(From left) Adele Johnson, the director of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, with guest curator Alvin Lester and quilter Mary Lauderdale. Photo: Yasmine Jumaa

A new exhibit at the Black History Museum explores themes of freedom through the lens of 38 artists. The exhibit showcases equity and social justice issues, and celebrates tradition and accomplishment throughout black history.

WCVE’s Yasmine Jumaa has more for Virginia Currents.


The Art of Freedom features works in a variety of mediums including photography, painting and textiles -- by the Sisters of the Yam African American Quilters. The name comes from a book with the same title by author bell hooks -- and the healing nature of quilting.

Mary Lauderdale: We quilt with our fabric to heal ourselves. Not for husbands or children or family or anybody else, but just for ourselves, something creative that we can do.

That’s Mary Lauderdale, she’s worked at the museum for over 20 years, and has been a member of the quilting group since 2001. Lauderdale says her biggest influences are the women in her life.

Lauderdale: My grandmother, my mother, and each other. I learned a lot from my quilt sisters.

The Sisters of the Yam have two quilts on display, which Lauderdale says incorporate African and African American patterns and fabrics. The first quilt uses a technique called cut-and-share, where each quilter brings a yard of vibrant fabric, cuts it in half and passes it around.

Mary Lauderdale, a member of the Sisters of the Yam African American Quilters,  beside the cut-and-share quilt. Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE

Lauderdale: Each of us got elements of most of the colors and then we were allowed to put them together anyway we wanted. It was freedom, we were free to do what we wanted to do.

The other featured quilt is more traditional, and incorporates a chain motif.

Lauderdale: Enslaved women would make quilts using that pattern. In those days they didn't have patterns to follow, but they would use what they had, and still come up with something beautiful.

Lauderdale says freedom, to her, means individuality and self-expression.

Lauderdale: Freedom to be myself, to think the way I want to and to create the way I want to.

Mary Lauderdale points out the chain design bordering the quilt. Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE

The exhibit is layered with themes of endured sacrifice, history and culture -- dating back 400 years to when the earliest known enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia.

Stephanie Trimiew Ruffin: You can look around this exhibit and you can see where we've been and where we are now and that's progress. And we want to build on that. We don't want to go backwards.

That’s artist Stephanie Trimiew Ruffin. The retired Richmond Police Officer discovered her passion for painting, and says she uses it as an outlet to call attention to the social ills of society. She has three paintings in the exhibit that are part of series about people who spoke out against racism.

Trimiew Ruffin features American rapper J. Cole, football player Colin Kaepernick and civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. She was a voting and women’s rights activist who co-founded the Free Mississippi Democratic Party, which sent delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.

Trimiew Ruffin: I hope that through this visual communication, people will start to think about where they are in their own lives and what they can contribute when it comes to topics like racism. You never know what you can do with just the few words. It could change someone's life.

Ruffin says that to her, freedom means access -- which is a longtime struggle for people of color in America.

Trimiew Ruffin: Access for me is having the ability to speak my mind, to have a voice and to be heard.

Artist Joel Howard says he had a hard time conceptualizing freedom at first, but something his mother once told him, inspired the photograph he took for this exhibit.

Joel Howard: She said freedom is not free. And as a kid I had a moment where I was trying to understand what do you mean freedom is not free.

Howard contemplated her words when he saw what would become the image in his photograph: a homeless woman, draped with  a white blanket sleeping on a city bench.

Joel Howard and his photograph titled "Is Freedom Free?" Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE

Howard: All of a sudden it hit me. Is freedom free?

Howard says he wants to continue documenting freedom, or the lack thereof, around the city.

Howard: I’ve seen different shots around Richmond that I want to take to showcase homelessness and freedom and decision because to me, you create your freedom through your decisions.

Alvin Lester: I hope that people will walk away with a realization that freedom is not free.

Alvin Lester, the guest curator for the exhibit says he wants it to inspire visitors and evoke a sense of action.

Alvin Lester is the guest curator for the Art of Freedom Exhibit. Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/WCVE

Lester: There's still a lot to be done. You know, freedom is a work in progress.

All of the featured artists are either Virginia-born or based. Others include woodcut printmaker Dennis Winston, muralist Hamilton Glass and painters Yha Yha Hargrove and S. Ross Browne.

The Art of Freedom exhibit runs through April 27 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. For Virginia Currents, I’m Yasmine Jumaa, WCVE News.

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