Students, faculty and community members are invited to attend four new art installations at the Muscarelle Museum of Art and Earl Gregg Swem Library which are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first African-American residential students at the College of William and Mary. From bronze masks to polyester resin sculptures, the three alumnae Lynn Briley ’71, Janet Brown ’71 and Karen Ely ’71, along with those that came before and after them, are acknowledged through the exhibits in different ways.
Visitors to the Muscarelle will find two new exhibits, titled “Building on the Legacy: African American Art from the Permanent Collection and Fred Eversley” and “50 Years an Artist: Light & Space & Energy,” which opened to the public Sept. 2.
Director and CEO of the Muscarelle Aaron De Groft acknowledged that while 50 years is a “woefully” short time, it is important for the Muscarelle to show support for the College.
Part of the mission of the museum is to support the teaching mission of the College,” De Groft said. “We’re self-defined as simply one other laboratory of experiential learning.”
“Part of the mission of the museum is to support the teaching mission of the College,” De Groft said. “We’re self-defined as simply one other laboratory of experiential learning.”
The Muscarelle’s assistant director and chief curator John Spike noted that the museum’s collection of African-American art a few years ago only totaled 19 works by roughly 20 African-American artists. Today, however, Spike says that the collection has doubled, with about 25 different African-American artists represented in “Building on the Legacy,” which will remain on display until Jan. 18 of next year.
“Our ambition is to represent … the most widely recognized, nationally recognized African-American artists in every part of the United States,” Spike said.
According to Spike, the collection covers “a wide chronological sweep,” with the earliest artwork on display, “Moonlit Landscape,” attributed to Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner, who was born in 1859 and who continued his art studies in France as a result of racial prejudice in the United States, was cited by Spike as “the first major African-American artist.”
“It’s very good that we have an important early work by him,” Spike said.
Also on display in the collection is a 1993 photograph of Maya Angelou by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, acquired by the Muscarelle in 2015. The photograph, which Spike said in an email was “carefully retouched by the artist to deepen the shadows and enhance the delicate light on the face” was originally a part of Angelou’s own collection.
“It is a great work of portraiture that any museum would be proud to have,” Spike said in an email. “We spotted it, went up to New York City to inspect it, and brought it back home.”
The second floor of the Muscarelle will house the works of engineer and artist Fred Eversley until Dec. 10. For 50 years, Eversley has aimed to involve the viewer “in the energy of light and sound” in his art, according to a press release by the Muscarelle. Spike said that the Eversley polyester resin and acrylic sculptures were uniquely arranged in the exhibit, garnering praise from donors.
“There’s this big red one through which you sort of view everything,” Spike said. “Wherever you see one of these lenses, we put them up as sort of looking stations, and you look at the other ones. And it’s never been done quite that way in an Eversley show before.”
Along with the Muscarelle, Swem has two new installations to commemorate the anniversary. “Lemonade: A Picture of America” was unveiled Aug. 31 during a reception for the three alumnae and the community in Swem.
The mural, with its creation overseen by artist Steve Prince and completed with contributions from students of his “Workshop on Black Expressive Culture” class, is permanently displayed in the lobby of Swem.
Exhibits Manager Jennie Davy said that the space where the mural now resides was under renovation for some time.
Now accompanied by an exhibit of oral histories on the adjacent wall, Davy said that the mural helps serve as a focal point in the lobby.
The thought process was having it someplace on campus where it could be a permanent installation and be accessible to everyone and be a shared space on campus, not belonging to a single department but someplace where it would really belong to the campus,” Davy said.
“The thought process was having it someplace on campus where it could be a permanent installation and be accessible to everyone and be a shared space on campus, not belonging to a single department but someplace where it would really belong to the campus,” Davy said.
Davy, who said that she had previously worked on exhibits that addressed the College’s past as a slave-owning institution and as an exploitative employer of African Americans during the Jim Crow era, acknowledged that the mural represented the changing nature of the College’s legacy.
“It’s a powerful piece about the transformational relationship that the College has had in terms of going from a slave-owning institution to a place where our motto is … ‘everyone is welcome here,’” Davy said. “This art piece is part of that transformational journey in terms of our relationship as an institution with an including [of] African Americans as a part of the institution rather than being the people that are … exploited.”
Prince said that he incorporated the commemoration’s theme of the Akan word “sankofa,” or what Prince defines as “looking into one’s past in order to move forward.”
“As far as the institution is concerned, it also can move forward from its slavery past,” Prince said. “It has to look very soberly, and with open eyes, and not just simply look, but it has to embrace it — what took place in the past. There’s an element in there that speaks to its magic future … what this nation could look like if it were to embrace that truly, and were to reconfigure and rebirth and go through such a rebirth of those ideas and where it could be … The other element that’s within the mural that’s central to the three women who are projecting out of it. They are a constant reminder of the power of integration and its importance to our nation.”
Swem’s second exhibit, “Brave Enough to be First: Exploring 50 Years of African Americans in Residence at William & Mary” will open Sept. 15.
Curator Mallory Walker said that the exhibit has three parts which will examine those that preceded the three alumnae, the alumnae’s own experiences and the atmosphere at the College after their arrival. According to Walker, the exhibit will take the artistic representation in the mural and delve into an archival perspective.
“We’re delving into the entire history, like the entire timeline, and seeing how the first blacks on were campus — they were slaves — and going from that and seeing how it evolved and what the experiences were like for those first three women, and also where those spaces were created after they arrived for more black bodies and spaces where black people could feel safe and secure, so looking at student organizations and the ways faculty and staff have worked hard to make sure that this is a welcoming space,” Walker said.
Walker said that her exhibit is a part of the long journey of reconciliation at the College.
“It proves that William and Mary is at a point where they’re willing to put in the resources to discuss this and to celebrate the three women and to acknowledge where [the College has] gone wrong, which I think is really incredible,” Walker said.