For black creatives living in Richmond, it’s not enough to follow the trends and changes in our ever-shifting city. While all artists have to stay relevant and engaged with the broader culture, there are extra challenges black artists face. A partial list of the extra barriers black artists face includes racism, both implicit and intentional, gentrification in their communities, and the appropriation that happens when white communities step in to fill the gentrified spaces.
This article originally appeared in RVA #33 Summer 2018, you can check out the issue here, or pick it up around Richmond now.
The aesthetic and look of Richmond are part of a rising popularity that’s sparked infatuation with our collective creative energy. But what about the people who have been here, made it ripe for the picking, and who now struggle to get by? For black folks, organizing isn’t just for marches and confronting white supremacy on Monument Avenue, but an everyday practice to ensure economic justice when threatened by local government and corporate entities. Sometimes, it’s about establishing new spaces for black art, after gentrification and white angst have pushed us out of the neighborhoods where we once lived and worked.
On Southside, in the Manchester neighborhood, community boosters formed the Manchester Manifest group to support and build up black art. Working with AJ Brewer at Brewer’s Cafe, they’ve brought back the First Friday Art Walk, an event which first began in Jackson Ward, to celebrate black music and visual arts from the local community.
Black artists in Richmond are used to facing extraordinary challenges. When 6th District City Councilwoman Ellen Robertson proposed using city funds for public art to balance the budget, a measure that passed by a majority council despite opposition from Mayor Levar Stoney, it shocked Richmond’s white art community. For black artists, it was just another day of being undervalued and silenced.
One of these artists, who goes by the name Silly Genius, said the “lack of support does not feel new.” He links the sprouting of the RVA brand with new challenges to black artists in Richmond; starting with First Friday, which began in Jackson Ward as a civic boost for black residents and businesses owners.
Genius said that event has changed, in tone and audience, due to efforts by the city and Virginia Commonwealth University to create a more mainstream, trendy space for white outsiders. As First Friday became centered on a part of Broad Street that was eventually officially classified as “the Arts District,” police presence increased, the area became viewed as more dangerous, and the original art walk was shut down.
Genius said First Friday may have become “easier to swallow” for the city, but “the shift left an impact on local artists.” It’s just another example of a city that uses the energy of its black population to appeal to white visitors.
Artist Justice Dwight said the problem also happened with individual galleries not taking an intentional approach to include local artists. “Spaces are almost like a secret. There’s no info out there [about] where to find these spaces for artists. While some spaces are obviously moving forward, some still seem to have quotas. Meet those, and move on,” Dwight said.
Muralist Creative Bordeaux has his own story of facing racism as an artist in Richmond. After being hired for a mural, he saw it pulled down almost as quickly as it went up. The problem: The work depicted a black man.
“I was doing a nautical theme mural, I wasn’t specifically asked to do anything that was cartoony. When [the client] initially viewed the work, and said it scared him, I was confused at his fear because the sketch was a man in a field with butterflies,” Bordeaux said. Despite the beauty of his work, the man said he “didn’t want any Nelson Mandela faces or black power fists on the piece. But I wasn’t drawing Nelson Mandela, I was drawing a man, who was black. He had the full lips, wide nose and pronounced black features. The hand wasn’t closed, it was open and there were butterflies. It took a second to hear what he said… well, what he was really saying. He was saying that a black man, in any form, is scary. I am a black man, being told not to draw black men.”
These experience illustrate why organizing in black spaces is vital to the survival of black art as well as black creative minds. Receiving messages that your body invokes fear and is generally unaccepted in your own city is what keeps black folks in a silent rage. The cure for this rage is to enter a space made for black folks, by black folks, where the silence turns into the sounds of laughter and home.
Historically, one space that has supported the innovation of black events and culture free from gentrification is the barbershop. By the early 1900s, barbering and the men’s grooming industry became the hub of learning and produced unprecedented wealth and opportunities for black men during some of the toughest eras in modern history. If we are watching and listening carefully, we can see how this is manifesting in Richmond. Chatting with black artists, creatives, and go-getters, the Brand New Wave barbershop was a place continually mentioned as a place to get a haircut, but also to share ideas. Brand New Wave is a barbershop on Hull Street owned and operated by J. Bizz, who is also a musician who hosts events in the city. What happens in the shop is more than expression of hair and socializing of friends; it is also a place to organize the community.
When J. Bizz meets with clients, he hears their interests and what they want to see in their neighborhood, which is how the RVA Ball for a Cause Charity Basketball Game at the Ben Wallace Gym has come together. For two years, the event has raised funds for the youth of Richmond Public Schools. J. Bizz uses a team approach, gathering clients, business owners, artists, and friends to play a pretty decent game of basketball. It provides a fun day for the community with food, entertainment, and resources, but also a stage for local musicians to promote their art. Brand New Wave gives more than hair; it gives hope of new pathways for creatives in the city.
That hope needs molding, planning, and execution to help artists overcome challenges that appear insurmountable. Alex Gwynn, a creative who has lived in Richmond since 2011 and works with J. Bizz, said that creating a team to showcase art for the world means creating a whole network of support within a community. The challenge is that everyone is working with limited resources of space, supplies, and promotion. But at the end of the day, the artistic community is coming together to make it happen. Through venues like Brewer’s Cafe and the Manchester Manifest group, the same energy that started First Friday in Jackson Ward is keeping spaces for black artists alive, long past the quota that limits our participation on Broad Street.