Exhibition exploring race in contemporary art opens at the ICA in October

Paint chip held up in front of large building.
Charlotte Lagarde, Colonial White, 2017-ongoing, digital print. (Photo: S. Leo Chiang)

In October, the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University will present “Great Force,” an exhibition that uses painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance to examine racial constructs in the United States. The exhibition will feature new commissions and recent work by an intergenerational group of 21 established and emerging artists, including Pope.L, Sable Elyse Smith, Charlotte Lagarde and Tomashi Jackson. 

The exhibit borrows its title from a quote by novelist and social critic James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

“Great Force” will explore how contemporary artists contend with persistent black-white racial bias and inequality. The exhibition is curated by Amber Esseiva, ICA assistant curator and an alumna of the VCU School of the Arts, and will run through January 2020. For the duration of “Great Force,” the ICA will convene community discussions about race, representations of the oppressed and the empowered, and how art can become a tool in pursuit of visibility. 

“From the long-lingering effects of the U.S. slave trade and the Civil War to the current prison industrial complex, to the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter, questions of visibility, invisibility and justice are central issues for artists, curators and U.S. citizens living and working today,” Esseiva said. “‘Great Force’ grapples with these questions and their consequences, and offers a range of perspectives that challenge narratives of identity and power.” 

“We hope that ‘Great Force’ can be a powerful contribution to public dialogue about race locally and nationally, and a picture of how perceptions of race function in our everyday lives,” said Dominic Willsdon, executive director of the ICA. “The concerns of this show have always been part of the American experience, but are timely in new ways.”

“Great Force” will showcase a variety of artistic mediums that ask audiences to consider how artists are choosing to appear in, engage with and withdraw from racialized representations that dominate discourse in America. Emphasizing the perspectives of artists of color, the exhibition will feature new and recent work from Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, Tony Cokes and Paul Stephen Benjamin, as well as emerging artists, many of whom will have their museum debut as part of this exhibition.

Pope.L’s “The Great White Way, 22 Miles, 9 years, 1 street (1990),” which documents the artist’s nine-year effort to crawl the length of New York City’s Broadway while wearing a capeless Superman costume representing a black man’s struggle to pursue the American dream, will be on view alongside new work commissioned by the ICA. These projects include:

  • A site-specific public drawing on the ICA’s glass-filled facade by Tomashi Jackson that will displace images of private labor in public spaces through mark-making, figuration and erasure.
  • A multimedia installation by Xaviera Simmons including images, furniture and sculptural works that present a vision of American policy through the lens of disenfranchisement and oppression.


The exhibition will include performances and site-responsive commissions that engage Richmond residents. Alexandra Bell’s “Counternarratives,” a site-specific work that explores how racist narratives are perpetuated through language and news media, will be installed on several buildings around Richmond. Additionally, filmmaker and visual artist Charlotte Lagarde will invite the community to participate in her citywide project “Colonial White,” which asks participants to photograph a white paint chip in a place, with an object, or in a situation that embodies whiteness to them.

Artist performances and public events related to “Great Force” will bring together thought leaders from the Richmond community and beyond and a cinema series will coincide with the exhibition. Additional programs and details will follow.

“Great Force” will be accompanied by a fully illustrated and interactive publication produced by Silas Munro and Brian Johnson, both native Virginians who run the bicoastal studio Poly-Mode. Taking design and typographic inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’ migration maps and charts, the publication will include contributions by Nicholas Mirzoeff, Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute, and Rebecca Walker.

About the Institute for Contemporary Art

The Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University is a noncollecting institution that showcases a fresh slate of changing exhibitions and programs. The ICA is a place to explore new ideas, providing an open forum for dialogue and collaboration across the region and the world. Mirroring the increasing emphasis on cross-disciplinary studies across VCU, the ICA has created a new environment for artists and scholars from around the world to test ideas. As a university-wide resource, the ICA links campus, community, and contemporary artists by supporting local creative communities, engaging an international network of contemporary artists and organizations, and encouraging collaborations with VCU departments, faculty, students and the Richmond community. The ICA is a responsive institution that offers a broad range of artistic perspectives with the goal of questioning assumptions and encouraging critical discourse. For more information on the ICA, please visit icavcu.org.

About VCU and the VCU School of the Arts

VCU is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. One of the nation's leading schools of arts and design, VCU School of the Arts offers 15 undergraduate and 10 graduate degree programs in fine arts, design, performing arts, historical research and pedagogical practice. Distinguished faculty members are internationally recognized in their respective fields, contribute significantly to the stature of VCU, and are committed to mentoring the next generation of artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, scholars and engaged citizens of diverse communities around the world. Its campus in Qatar provides students and faculty with a direct tie to the Middle East and underscores the school and university's commitment to global education and experience.