Last January, Richmond got a close-up in National Geographic magazine: On the popular magazine’s cover was an image of the city’s Robert E. Lee Monument, covered in graffiti from Black Lives Matter protesters and serving as a backdrop for a projection of George Floyd.
Soon, Richmond will receive a second dose of this illuminating imagery.
On Dec. 29, 2021, it was announced that Reclaiming the Monument, the protest art endeavor behind the projections, and the Valentine Museum had received a $670,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Monuments Project to create additional projections. The funding is part of a $250 million commitment by the Mellon Foundation to support public projects that more accurately depict America’s people and their stories.
Beginning around March or April, the new Recontextualizing Richmond public art project will create temporal light-based artworks that highlight underserved racial, historical and social justice narratives in the Richmond region. Founded by local artists Alex Criqui and Dustin Klein, Reclaiming the Monument will create the installations with local activist groups. Dialogues and educational outreach with activists, historians and the public will accompany the installations.
“We’re going to try to make a series of more elaborate, more complex installations around the city that people can encounter … in their daily lives,” says Criqui, adding that Reclaiming the Monument plans to add additional people to its organization. “[The installations are] all going to intersect with neglected historical subjects and legacies that have been overshadowed or outright ignored through most of Richmond’s history in its popular telling.”
While details are yet to be revealed, Criqui says places like Shockoe Bottom’s African Burial Ground, Belle Isle and Powhatan Hill are possible locations for installations.
Bill Martin, director of the Valentine, says he’s long been a fan of Criqui and Klein and their projections.
“We’ve talked to them on a number of occasions and over time we realized that there was a real opportunity in the work that they do, with the support of the Valentine, to undertake this amazing project,” Martin says. “These are attempts to engage the public in places where important stories happened that you may not know.”
Martin says the project will leverage the engravings, photographs, paintings and other images of the Valentine collection to tell these stories. Already, Valentine staff is working to identify images and research that will assist with the effort.
“Their work is so image-focused that using this collaboration as a resource for what they might do just seemed logical,” says Martin, adding that he sees the Valentine as a community facilitator in the effort. “This needs to be essentially a community-focused project.”
Criqui says the idea for the initial Lee Monument projections began as a spur of the moment idea (the last of the Lee Monument pedestal was removed last week). As Klein is a lighting and video designer who often works with performing bands, he already had the equipment he needed for the projections.
“In the summer of 2020, after seeing what was happening out there and some of the acts of police violence that we witnessed, we felt compelled to do something and to use our voices to speak out,” says Criqui, who handles more of the creative side of their efforts; Klein handles more of the technical ones. “We just wanted to support the movement out there. We started off with some material that we’d gotten from the Black Lives Matter national organization, and then modified the portrait of George Floyd, which kind of quickly set the visual template that we continued to support and explore.”
Nearly every day for a little over a year, Criqui and Klein put up a new image to respond what was happening in Richmond and the country at large. Asked about the press their projections garnered, Criqui puts the attention back on the movement and protesters.
“That was an honor. It was really gratifying to see our city – and not just our work – but the work of all the people that have been involved in Marcus-David Peters Circle get that attention,” he says, using the name that local Black Lives Matter activists call the Lee Monument; Peters was a Black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police while experiencing a mental health crisis in 2018.
Still, the issuing of the grant to two white men has garnered criticism, with some asking if Black artists will receive similar funds. Criqui says they’re working to make sure that the project prominently features the voices and involvement of Black and indigenous activists, that they’ve already secured partnerships with activist organizations Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, History is Illuminating and the Richmond Indigenous Society, and that other partnerships are in the works. Criqui says they’ll essentially serve as a “production company” for these organizations.
“We’re putting ourselves at their service,” he says.
Criqui also notes that the total monument project fund is $250 million.
“I hope that more of that [funding] will come to Richmond, and more of that will be put into the hands of Black Lives [Matter] organizations,” Criqui says. “Our core goal [is] to make sure that we’re working with activists and organizations who have been doing this work for years. We’re really hoping to take some of this spotlight we’ve been given and put it on them by making works of art together.”