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Visual Artists Are Memorializing Richmond’s BLM Movement

Charm school mural
"Greetings from Richmond, Virginia" mural painting in progress. (Photo: Ross Trimmer)

As Confederate statues came down across Richmond, street art quickly took their places. Graffiti, signs, and murals tell new stories about the people who live in the city - and document the historical moment the community is experiencing.

Overnight, boarded up windows were tagged with the names of Black lives lost to police violence. Anti-police language was sprayed on concrete barriers encircling the Lee statue, and graffiti expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement now decorates the pedestal.

"This is just one step in what's going to be a long lasting battle for a more accurate history being told." - Marc Cheatham

A lot of this artwork is plastered on surfaces that will eventually be removed, but Marc Cheatham hopes the art will be preserved. Cheatham started “ The Cheats Movement,” a multi-platform collective that promotes Richmond’s hip-hop and arts scenes.

“I hope there's a way that we can collect, archive and reuse that art to capture this period of time, because I think it's pivotal, especially in a city like Richmond, Virginia,” he said. “This is just one step in what's going to be a long lasting battle for a more accurate history being told.”

No official preservation plans have been discussed, but some local creatives have already found ways to document these works so that the story of this moment may live on.

Using photography to navigate a movement

Marcus Ingram has been a  photographer since high school, and now takes portraits for Utmost Co, a men’s streetwear company on Broad Street. The shop was one of many damaged at the onset of the Richmond protests.

“We ended up boarding up the store, so I was documenting my friends who work on the street, and the boarding up of stores and of our store,” Ingram said. “And then from there, I started documenting what was going on around Lee.”

Ingram says he was upset at first that Utmost -- along with other Black-owned businesses -- was damaged. But as the messages behind the demonstrations came into sharper focus, Ingram says he was moved by people taking action and progress being made.

His shift in perspective informed his photography as he took on highlighting what he says are the positive sides to the ongoing demonstrations: Black youth dancing; a business community coming together to rebuild their storefronts; friends debating current issues.

“My photo was to show people that there is hope in the future and there is a light at the end of the road,” he said.

Cheatham says both videographers and photographers like Ingram that have documented the protests deserve official recognition for their work.

“The photographers that are out there are taking some of the most artistic shots, but also some of the best works of photojournalism and street photography that we've ever seen during this time,” he said. “It’s really exciting how this stuff is being documented. They deserve awards.”

A show of strength through dance

In a few of Ingram’s photos, two young Black ballerinas dance in front of a graffiti-covered Lee statue. One of them is Ava Holloway, 14. She says the moment behind the photographs made her feel “very powerful.”

“Dance is the way that I express myself, and it’s a way that I can be my greater self. It’s something you have to do with a greater attitude in order to achieve something,” Holloway said.

She says she finds strength through dance, drawing parallel between the demands of the art form and the burden racism creates for people of color.

“Dance is very hard, and also the racism that we’re dealing with right now, we’re going through a hard time,” Holloway said. “When you put those two things together, there’s so much you can accomplish when you fight.”

The photos of Holloway and her fellow dancer, Kennedy, captured that day by Ingram and photojournalist Julia Rendleman, went viral. They have been featured in national news outlets, and video of the dancers was even included in a John Legend music video.

Amanda Lynch, Holloway’s mother, says Black women often go unseen as these histories are told. She says she’s proud and encouraged to see her daughter’s face be connected to the movement.

“I think that these young people -- young women in particular -- have a voice, and they're not taking ‘no’ for an answer in terms of being seen. They're finding that if there's no room at the table, they're just bringing their own table. That just makes me really happy to see,” Lynch said.

The experience has inspired Lynch and Holloway to write a children’s picture book, where a young Black ballerina faces Confederate General Robert E. Lee, with a message of empowerment for Black youth.

A moment in time immortalized virtually

Terry Kilby is a 3D capture artist based in Maryland. He said he was motivated to come to Richmond by the tales his girlfriend would tell him of the time she had spent walking down Monument Avenue.

“I took the trip down to Richmond solely for the purpose of documenting that one monument,” he said. “I was interested in documenting it purely based on her description. The fact that it was in the state that it was in was just icing on the cake.”

The Lee statue and its pedestal now sit covered in paint and graffiti, surrounded by banners and signs that show support for the Black Lives Matter movement and mourn victims of police violence.

Kilby used his drone and cameras to capture about 800 close-up photos of the monument. He then stitched them together to create a digital 3D reconstruction of the statue. He says he was “extremely moved” by the fact that he was able to capture the statue, which has been in place for over 100 years, at a unique time in its history.

Robert E. Lee Monument: 6.15.2020 by Terry Kilby on Sketchfab

“It took on a different meaning, and there was a different message being put forth by that monument. It had transformed,” Kilby said. “It was no longer putting forth compassion for the Confederate efforts. It was now serving as a beacon of hope for people during the Black Lives Matter movement.”

He says after coming home that day, he reflected on the time he spent at the Marcus-David Peters Circle and it “brought [him] to tears.” He says he’s now working on a virtual reality experience using his model so others can experience this moment -- anywhere, at any time.

“It is carved in digital stone right now. There is no taking it back,” Kilby said. “The state that I found it in that morning, it's preserved that way from here on out.”

A living mural reflects on the present

Ross Trimmer and Mickael Broth are the painters behind the “Greetings from Richmond” mural that is displayed on the side of Charm School, an ice cream shop on Broad Street.

The mural was initially commissioned by Charm School in 2016 to be a postcard-style painting that showcased architecture and landmarks representing the city of Richmond. As BLM protesters were met with violent police countermeasures this year, the artists wanted the mural to draw attention to these incidents.

“It had become this de facto place of ‘Oh, let me show everybody I'm in Richmond,’” Broth said. “Okay, well then it should represent what Richmond is at this point.”

Broth and Trimmer spent a weekend painting over the mural, replacing the famous buildings and bridges with images of police in riot gear firing tear gas and protesters holding BLM signs. The new paintings were inspired by work from local photographers David Parrish and Nils “NILS” Westergard, and by footage from VPM, Style Weekly and the Commonwealth Times.

“There's been so much powerful imagery that's come out of all of this, between things that are just beautiful and uplifting, and then things that are just revolting and awful to see on a soul crushing level,” Broth said.

Ross says the mural, like many works of art, is not permanent, but rather a living artifact that will take on new forms as times change. He hopes in a couple years it will portray something more optimistic, “when real change has happened.”

“If we are to believe all those monument enthusiasts, the only way to remember history is with public art,” Ross said. “So I guess we're doing that.”

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