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Richmond Artists Reflect on Public Art and Transforming Symbols of Racism

Sign before statue
Community members have added artistic context to the Lee monument in the form of graffiti and signage, and have dubbed the area the Marcus-David Peters Circle. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

This story was reported by Pam Hervey.

As a young African American artist in Richmond, Austin Miles knew her future was in creating public art. She says she fell in love with it after seeing the impact of her first few projects.

“I felt like, ‘Oh, well, I can make a difference with this. I can help people see themselves [and] provide representation.’” 
In cities and towns across America, public art exists in many forms, for example murals, sculptures and light displays. It is often paid for by the local government or public-private partnerships, but sometimes artists self-fund and install their work without going through official channels.  Valerie Cassel Oliver, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, says public art is vital to a community and a way to create conversation.

“It is literally art in the public domain,” said Cassel Oliver. “So it is a space where beautification can happen, where people can have a quality of life by just having beautiful surroundings. But public art also is there to tell stories. It's also there to signal information. Oftentimes public art takes the form of statues monuments but it also can just be artists work, which is non figurative, out in the public domain.”

There is power in public art, says Columbian Artist Alfonso Perez.  It can express ideology and point of view. But Perez says, if public art isn’t created with community input, it risks dividing the public it serves.

“Sometimes when you rapidly place a public art piece or a public artist to make an intervention before letting people speak, it becomes the same oppressive exercise from a different angle,” Perez said. 

For more than a century, the Confederate monuments of Richmond loomed over the city’s residents and visitors, and for many they served as a painful reminder of racism and white supremacy. But the spaces around the monuments were nearly always empty.  

The demonstrations against police brutality and for racial justice transformed those spaces. Brightly colored graffiti covers the monuments’ bases. At the Lee statue - renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle by the people - there are nightly light projections that started with images of George Floyd, Frederick Douglas and Maggie Walker’ and now include performances by Black musicians like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Countless people have contributed to changing this space, in an effort to tell a different story to the public.

“I think it’s important for those voices of passion, of anger, of hurt and in some versions-- love for the ones that they’ve lost. I think it’s important for those voices to not be stifled and be hid away,” said Miles. 

For weeks, the spaces have been “activated with art and a sense of unity,” said Miles. There’s been music, dance, cookouts, basketball, voter registration, wedding and graduation portraits. People have planted flowers and vegetables near the Marcus-David Peters Circle sign. Some have traveled hours to experience the site with their children.

“I think there's something very special about this space that was stark, it was a place where nobody set foot on the grass,” said Miles. “Now it's a place for communion. And I think there's something really important about that. And I think as you move forward as a city, we should hold on to the community aspect of what's happening naturally around these spaces.” 

What will become of these spaces after the statues are removed? While the City hasn’t announced a formal discussion of their future, Perez says it’s an invitation for a different conversation and one that’s inclusive,

“I think it’s a natural process,” said Perez. “If you let people speak in any creative language that they want with spray paint, or with dancing or photography or candles or anything, and then try to figure out a way of how to connect that and adapt those voices to the city in a more sustainable and in a more cohesive way.”. 

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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