‘A platform of influence’

White poster with black lettering reading Black Lives Matter of Life or Death

As a community of artists, the students and alumni of VCUarts have a unique voice, one that can foster an understanding of different experiences, create space for difficult conversations, and even reshape society.

This has been especially evident in recent weeks. Here are just a few of the students and alumni who are creating new work to mark this critical point in our cultural history, and leveraging their creative platforms to advocate for social justice for Black lives.

The view from the street
VCUarts Photography + Film and Art Education alum Rae Fines (BFA ’20) has been documenting protests and related events across the city of Richmond.

“My main goal for these photos is just to document what is actually going on in the streets from a protestors’ point of view,” Fines says. “I want to show the anger, the dedication and love that are out on the streets every day. I feel as though I have a duty to photograph. I have a skillset in photography, and am using it to document what is happening.”

“I am drawn to smaller moments within a protest that help to contextualize and humanize the protestors. This includes moments of solidarity between strangers who just met, the pain and frustration that can be seen on someone’s face as they scream ‘No justice, no peace,’ or when a white onlooker stares down a protest with no emotion on their face.”

“But I am not solely at these protests to photograph. I am also chanting, marching and getting tear gassed like everyone else. I am just as angry and frustrated. When I saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, I saw my dad. I saw my little brother’s future if we don’t make a change.”

Mapping a memorial
Kinetic Imaging graduate student Eric Millikin has been making street portraits of victims of police violence since 7-year-old Aiyana Jones was killed in Detroit in 2010. Millikin says “there have been too many other portraits in this series,” including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Sandra Bland outside Houston, Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Eric Garner in New York, and most recently, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

“Each portrait is drawn in one continuous line through the streets of the city where they were killed,” he says, “mapping a sort of memorial procession route through their city, connecting key points in their lives, deaths, and afterward, such as the high school they recently graduate from, the place where they were first stopped over some minor alleged infraction, the hospital where they were pronounced dead, the cemetery where they were buried, their homes they will never return to, the courthouse where their killers were set free, and the sites where their fellow citizens protested their killing.”

“Like any memorial, these are meant to serve as reminders: Reminders of human beings whose lives have been cut unnecessarily short, with decades stolen from each of these people, and reminders of the decades’ worth of moments and memories stolen from each and every friend, family member, loved one, and everyone else they would have touched. They also serve as reminders of how much more we need to do.”

“If we don’t want our cultural conversations about race to be dominated by racists through using lies and propaganda to strengthen these racist systems, then it’s important for anti-racist artists to speak up through our artwork and otherwise.”

Art for sale
Students have been joining together to create a virtual exhibition of their work—but with a social justice mission. Organizers of different projects are curating, distributing and selling work created by Richmond-area artists, with proceeds supporting local and national organizations.

Kyle Guilford, a Communication Arts student, is the organizer behind RVArt Support, which shares work by Richmond artists on a dedicated Instagram account. A prospective buyer can connect directly with an artist for the transaction, and select one of four organizations—Black Lives Matter, National Bail-Out Fund, Richmond Community Bail Fund, or Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond—to support with their purchase. Then, the artist makes a donation in the buyer’s name and sends proof of the donation, along with the artwork, to the buyer.

“I think that we, as a group, all agree that using our art and talent to give back is something that we all have to do,” Guilford says. “We have all been keeping up with the news, and many of us have gone out to protest and push for change. We all feel strongly about what is happening right now, and this is a really great way to support what we believe in.”

Alexis Jones, who recently completed the Art Foundation program and plans to major in Fashion Design, organized a similarly collaborative project for local artists and entrepreneurs. The RVA Artist Block Party was an online event featuring live streams of artists, musicians and dancers showcasing their talents and directing donors to a Go Fund Me fundraiser. The block party raised more than $1,000, which Jones says would be used to support the Richmond Community Bail and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Richmond, as well as area small businesses, including MamerSass Reinvented Fashions, Rumors Boutique, Balance Bicycle Shop, and Waller and Company Jewelers.

“Three of these small businesses are Black-owned and have faced financial dips, not only at the cost of damages, but also because of COVID-19,” she says.

“I feel like all artists have a platform of influence. We are examples for the people who consume our art, whether we realize it or not. I feel like all artists have an obligation to speak out about the things that are important, not only from a personal standpoint, but from a societal one as well.”

Printed messages

Through t-shirt and poster campaigns, alumni are helping others leverage their own voices, with proceeds going to organizations that fight inequality and support the Black community.

Bobby C. Martin Jr. (BFA ’99), a Graphic Design alumnus and founding partner of Champions Design, created a t-shirt and poster with the message “Black Lives Matter of Life or Death.” Martin is selling the shirts and posters through Merch Aid, which organized a collection of work by leading Black designers, and proceeds are being donated to Black Lives Matter of Greater New York.

“I had to answer the question, ‘What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?’ The answer was simple: It’s a matter of life or death,” Martin says. “To visualize it, building on the moment and visual language of posters and placards marching through the streets during Black Lives Matter protests, I cut out typography as large as it could be, then combined the Black Lives Matter and Life or Death into one statement.”

“It’s important for artists and designers to be active in any way possible. I’ve marched, I’ve donated, I’ve voted, and I also have the added responsibility to use my skills to amplify important messages.”

In addition to Martin, Sean Powell, a business and psychology alum and executive director of Engage, the Foundation, is selling a Black Lives Matter t-shirt through the foundation’s creative studio, Workshop RVA, to raise funds for local organizations like the Young Business Builders Program, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the Something in the Water festival. And Allison Barnes (BFA ’19), an art educator, has made a series of postcards that she hopes buyers will use to contact elected officials and advocate for policy changes. In addition, she’s donating proceeds from the sale of the cards to Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization that supports the analysis of policing practices, and research to identify solutions to end police violence.

“I wanted writers to remember that strong concise statements make huge impacts, a call to action is stronger and harder to ignore,” Barnes says. “A professor of mine recently said ‘artists drive revolutions.’ Change cannot happen if those with the ability to reach the masses do nothing.”