Painting + Printmaking alumnus explores Black narratives at InLight 2019

This year’s InLight exhibition—presented by 1708 Gallery—features the work of Malcolm Peacock (BFA ’16), who graduated from the Department of Painting + Printmaking.

Peacock recently completed his MFA at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, and now works and lives in New Orleans. “I am here through a best friend, Wesley Chavis, who has radically changed my life,” Peacock says. “We met at VCU and he was my TA. I’m excited to have more of a life here and time to develop my relationship to this city.”

Peacock’s practice privileges the lived experiences of Black people, and he has recently shown work in New York City and Los Angeles. His commission for InLight 2019 explores his connections to Richmond, including the narratives of family members, and of Black people throughout the city’s history. Below, Peacock talks about the story of his work, which will be on display at Chimborazo Park in Church Hill, Nov. 15 and 16.

For this year’s InLight commission, I’ve made a project about some of my family members. The individuals are not biologically related to me. I met all of them between the years of 2012 and 2015 before I moved away from Richmond in 2016. The work we’ve created deals with topics pertaining to the history of their individual lives. I’m interested in how these narratives of seven Black contemporary people exist in response to narratives of Black people of the past who occupied the same city. The content of this project is tough and large. Everything is happening and unfolding in real time.

I am super excited about the history of the site and the city as one. I’m a Black history freak. In a way that may not appear apparent at first, I get to share a bit about Gabriel Prosser, someone I have always admired. He was murdered the same week that Nat Turner was born.

I want audiences to feel something in relation to what they experience. I want to expose the audience to what they feel internally about the subjects that are depicted and centered. What they feel may change and that’s interesting to me.

I call upon my friends and family because they’ve simultaneously saved and made my life. They build, sculpt, create, and imagine ways of existing in a hyper-capitalist machine that we call the United States. They help to make the work and they are the work. Not just the art works that others experience, but the labor that goes into growing and changing and then choosing to share it with others. It is really quite vulnerable labor. I am forever indebted to them.

It is my hope that the art that often depicts them can serve in the present and future for others as ways to deal with the intensities of different lived experiences. Maybe a stranger hearing one of them deal with their illness related to sexual health will stick and give them a feeling of unity. And then what does that mean or look like or feel like when the voice they’re empathizing with is not coming from a person who looks or sounds like an individual that they would normally be in close proximity with?

From there, so much can happen. I’ve been lucky to witness audiences physically lift each other in the air, follow each other blindly for hours, rub each others’ faces, admit lies and faults to each other … these are dynamics that we can look at more closely. Possibility is essential to my practice and self-concept. [As African American sculptor Camille Billops said,] “Put all your friends in it, everybody you loved, so one day they will find you and know that you were all here together.”

Living in Richmond was an experience that put me through the ringer many times. My father’s death, my coming to terms with my sexuality, a near-death experience of my own, and realizing the racial discrimination I had endured as a child and teen all took place [in Richmond].

On my first semester break before school resumed, my father died. He was ill, but his death struck me with surprise. His funeral was the second of five that I attended in a 24-month span. I attended funerals of friend’s parents and later on we all ended up in a car accident together. Luckily, we all lived. Death is catastrophic. Regardless of how it is dealt with, loss is dense. So as an 18-year-old, I deepened this sensibility I have for human contact and a sense of belonging. When he died, I really wondered who I was. Years later, I read a quote from [writer] Hilton Als: “Who are we if we lose the people we have loved, and who have loved us?” It perfectly described my disorientation from the years of 2013 to 2014.

For me, [Richmond] is a battleground. I have so much joy when I’m visiting friends there. This happens while I walk through places where I experienced pain. I want to move in life in a way that allows for me to understand who and where I’ve been … so that I can document it, as well as offer myself in better ways to those who have offered so much to me. Within this specific body that I have, who and what could I become?

I’m over the moon about the lineup [of InLight 2019]. Milk River Arts, I used to work with as an undergrad—a life-changing experience. They are my heart. Ilana Harris-Babou, New Negress Film Society, and Sandy Williams IV are artists I admire. I’m honored to be included alongside them. Emily Smith is a director I’ve followed since my junior year of college.

It’s cool to fulfill things you sort of thought about but didn’t know were possible, and to be in conversation with your favorites.