This September, a nationally-recognized exhibit is coming to the Virginia Holocaust Museum to start a conversation on which lives depend. “Break Glass: The Art of V.L. Cox – A Conversation to End Hate“ is a striking collection of found-object sculptures meant to shape a timely narrative about civil rights and equality.
“Discrimination never stops with one group, that has been my message since day one,” said Cox, an Arkansas native. “If you allow one group to be dehumanized and treated as second-class citizens then it will automatically bleed over into others. Discrimination is like a virus, it spreads.”
From the series of doors once installed on the Lincoln Memorial steps to protest a discriminatory Arkansas religious freedom bill, to an original 95-year-old bloodstained Klan Robe, the works offer a cathartic commentary of the discrimination and prejudice that plagues American southern culture.
After seeing the exhibit at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, VHM’s director of education Megan Ferenczy knew immediately the works would be invaluable installations in Richmond’s museum.
“This is really relevant to what we do here,” said Ferenczy. “It doesn’t necessarily focus on the Holocaust, but it focuses on the larger issues of discrimination, intolerance, and hatred in our own country.”
Ferenczy explained that most importantly, the works create a conversation that is crucial to the ignition of positive progress. Although many of the works aren’t directly commenting on the treatment of the Jewish population in America, they further an essential dialogue in a space where creating conversation is the mission.
“The purpose of it is to confront this legacy of racism,” said Angela Rueda, assistant curator at the VHM. “It’s shining a light on this legacy, where hate and bigotry hides, and then using that as a platform to start a conversation…to create a space where people can confront this and…reach a place of civility.”
Many of the pieces are massive, like lifesize hooded figures, columns, and doors. “You enter the space and you’re immediately confronted with it,” said Rueda. Superficially, many of the pieces present messages that feel at odds with the space–like the gut punch of walking into a room and coming face to face with a Klan member–but deeper reflection reveals the stark juxtaposition of the intended use of these objects, and the way they are being offered to the exhibit’s audience.
Closer examination of each piece unveils hidden messages that, even when subtler than the iconic imagery of the white hood, still hits just as hard. For example, a mixed-media American flag–”Stained”– is actually created from pages of the Bible, ripped from their binding to represent the harm done when these verses are torn from context and used to oppress others.
Cox worked with ministers of different denominations when creating this piece, careful to tell her story, but to include the voices of others as well. “People rip pages out of the Bible every single day to harm others, you’re taking them out to show them that that’s wrong,” said Cox.
Rueda posited that while most people entering the museum are ready to face the atrocities of the Holocaust, they are not always ready to turn their eye inward on our own country, and the current perpetuation of hate and injustice in America today.
“This stuff is in our backyard. It’s right here in our state,” said Rueda, a fact made apparent by the recent one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August. Despite declarations of progress and advancement, white supremacists and fascists were more empowered than ever to hoist their Nazi-ideologies sans hood, and revive World War II era anti-semitic chants, like Nazi slogan “blood and soil.” It’s vital to confront these issues as a current national epidemic, and not arbitrarily confine them to a past that isn’t so long gone.
“It all starts with conversation,” said Cox. “People don’t talk to each other anymore. We communicate behind keyboards, and behind cell phones. It’s important that we get to know each other again.”
According to Cox, the best way to do that is through art. “You can look at something and you’re impacted by it,” she said. “You see it, feel it, it moves you. It communicates something to you, and that’s been going on since the beginning of time.”
“When archeologists do a dig in an ancient civilization, the first thing they look for are objects. They look for murals, they look for mosaics, they look for hand carved tools. That’s what tells them about this society, this civilization,” said Cox. “The arts are very powerful.”
Works like this help create the language future historians will use to understand our culture, but more importantly, it’s inserting that language into our current narrative. Through her work, Cox provides a context that can begin to change minds–even those as deeply rooted in Southern culture as rural Arkansas, or as historically chained to toxic narratives as our own former capital of the Confederacy.
Cox is from deep in the Bible Belt, where miscommunication, isolation, and misconception are to blame for much of the area’s deeply intolerant rhetoric. Arkansas has only 70 percent broadband access, Cox explained, and much of south Arkansas lacks cell phone service. The ability to surf the web is a luxury not everyone can afford. “Sometimes messages get cherry-picked, twisted, and turned around to be a misleading statement, and then it’s spread into the population.”
That makes the circulation of intelligent and thoughtful conversation critical, and is part of the reason why Break Glass is presented hand-in-hand with a number of educational components and opportunities.
The VHM is holding a professional development workshop for teachers to give educators the resources they need to have difficult and essential conversations with their students. “It empowers teachers and gives them the tools to have these conversations,” said Ferenczy. “If these conversations aren’t happening in the classroom, then where can they be had?”
They also invited reformed former skinhead Christian Picciolini to speak at the museum on Oct. 17, presenting to students, then later in the evening to the public. Once a leader of an American white power organization in Chicago, he is now the co-founder of a non-profit peace advocacy organization who works to get others out of a life of violent extremism.
Education is crucial to break the cycle of ignorance. Though it would be easier if our history remained rooted in the past, the cyclical nature of prejudice guarantees the repetition of inequality if a dialogue is never created.
“The arts step up in times of need, in dark times,” said Cox. “They play a powerful role in our society in reaching across boundaries and bringing about change.”
For some, the Holocaust is ongoing, and it’s only through conversations like those created by Break Glass that we can shatter the established national narrative.
“There really isn’t ever an end to the Holocaust, is there? Yes, maybe we hold people accountable, and maybe justice in some legal sense is served, but for Holocaust survivors, the Holocaust is still going on, for their children it’s still happening,” said Ferenczy. “This hatred still exists, it never went away.”
Break Glass opens on Sept. 28 and will run through Feb. 11 at the Virginia Holocaust Museum. Admission is free and open to the public.
Photos Courtesy of V.L. Cox. Top Image: “Soiled” A 1920 (95-year-old) bloodstained Klan robe installation. The robe was kept intact, and Vox purchased the vintage metal signage to show the true level of hatred this robe and installation represents.