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Student-led art project honors legacy of individuals enslaved by W&M

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The names of those who were enslaved by William & Mary slowly have been emerging during the past decade. This academic year, artists at the university have added faces, hands and other textured marks of belonging and humanity.

Responding to the Art Memorial to Honor the Enslaved initiative sponsored by the university’s Student Assembly (SA), more than 50 artists from across campus submitted original works accompanied by short histories of people identified by The Lemon Project as having been enslaved by the institution. The resulting contributions both surprised and inspired SA Vice President Kyle Vasquez '21 and SA Chief of Staff Loni Wright '21 in terms of their quantity and the breadth of emotion they elicited.

Compelled by the power of the images, the Muscarelle Museum of Art and The Lemon Project will join the Student Assembly in hosting a “visual unveiling” on April 26 at 7:30 p.m. in which, accompanied by poetry and dancing, the works will be projected onto the exterior walls of the Sir Christopher Wren Building.

Vasquez, who knew the names of famous alumni and past presidents who came to William & Mary, admitted that before the project he had never seen the name of a person who had been enslaved at the university.

“It’s really easy to run away from something when it doesn’t personally affect you,” he said. “These images forced me to reckon with this part of our history, to look at it and to have opinions.”

Wright added, “These paintings just bring their experiences here to life in a way that just saying a name doesn’t. This project gave us a way to do more than just say the name but also to tell the story.”

Swelling support

As the works have been previewed, support for the initiative have grown. During a Board of Visitors meeting last November, members expressed interest in privately purchasing some of the items. The Muscarelle subsequently added 18 of the submissions to the university’s President’s Collection of Art for public display, with the remaining works to be added to the university archive at W&M Libraries. Meanwhile, museum staff began assisting with the coordination, logistics and design of a physical exhibition at the Sadler Center and a virtual companion exhibition.

Jody Allen, director of The Lemon Project, sees the art as an integral part of the university’s efforts to investigate its ties to slavery and slavery’s legacies. During a webinar with SA representatives and contributing artists, she promised that the works will “live on campus” for a long time.

“We know so little about these individuals,” Allen said. “This art is beautiful work. It helps us to imagine … them in many different ways, as children, as adults. We can imagine the families. These people were a vital part of this community, and, through this art, they are being restored to the community, as the saying goes at William & Mary, ‘for all time coming.’”

Artist discussions

Among the artists discussing their contributions to the project, Meghan Davis M.Ed. ’22 described creating “Ephra 1768” by concentrating on a pair of hands holding a chain. In homage to the ongoing struggle for equity, she placed a quote from Nelson Mandela behind the image: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“For us to truly say that everyone is free, we need to make sure that we’re bringing this to light, that we are respecting and enhancing their freedoms, not just standing on soapboxes and saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she said.

Aria Austen ’21 said that he was inspired to participate in the project by the planning for the Memorial to the Enslaved. In his work “Unknown, but Never Forgotten” he blanked out the faces of the two individuals represented. “This painting is faceless, because we may not know who they are, but they are integral to our history,” he said.

Whitney Ledesma ’22 praised the project for encouraging engagement with the “continued presence of enslaved people who built and maintained this institution.” She described her attempt to interpret “Tom Mask and his mother Molly” with symbolic images, including necklaces and a subtle halo.

“Ritualized performance, or creating images, can be a way of keeping that person or entity alive, in a sense,” she said. “Even though I don’t know the real identities of these people, I wanted to really bring these people to life. They did have real faces with textures and lines and thoughts.”

Sarah E. M. Sutton M.B.A. ’23 participated after being nudged by her daughters to do something following the death of George Floyd. For her, creating a mixed media piece, “Honoring the Enslaved at W&M: Faith Forward-Lucy, 1768,” represented a “step in embracing the concept that I can take action where I am,” she said.

As she worked, she kept thinking about the fortitude, persistence and faith that must have been required of Lucy. “I tried to show her faith forward for future generations,” she said.

Vasquez and Wright speculated that several factors, including relative isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and the concurrent period of racial reckoning in the United States, prompted the unexpected response to the art project. Each also suggested that many students simply were eager to engage in a fuller telling of the history at William & Mary.

“Students really crave that sense of transparency,” Vasquez explained. “They want to know who made the brick, who’s gluing the brick down. I think the art memorial is another manifestation of wanting to be fully transparent.”

Wright agreed. “They want to be in the thick of it,” she said. “The paintings were an opportunity to do that. Instead of outsourcing it, we said we want you to be part of the fabrication of these.”

The students crave more than just a verbal acknowledgment of what happened on this campus, Vasquez and Wright agreed. “They want to see it on display,” Wright said. “The art project acts like a symbolic step in that direction. It’s just a beginning.”

A virtual exhibition of the project, with all of the entries, can be found here.