Storm in the Time of Shelter

by Ayele d’Almeida

Ayele d’Almeida is a Political Science and Leadership double-major from Bloomington, Minnesota. Her work at Common Ground, the University of Richmond’s social justice initiative informed her decision to pursue the Race & Racism Project as a summer fellow. She hopes that through her fellowship and continued connection with the project, she will learn more about the University of Richmond. Ayele believes that the Race & Racism Project will also help later in life – as the project forces her to question institutions she may benefits from. She hoped to focus her research on black faculty and the presence of black students in white-dominated clubs and spaces.

My second and last site visit for the Race & Racism Project was the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) on Sunday, July 1st. Going into the visit, I did not know much about the museum beside the fact that it was new. I had been seeing pictures of brightly patterned and slightly disturbing KKK robes on social media, but I had no idea that this installment was in the ICA.

The piece is entitled “Storm in the Time of Shelter” by Paul Rucker. Rucker’s work is typically about issues that affect people of color, specifically dealing with issues such as gun violence, mass incarceration, and lynchings. In this particular work features multiple faceless figures in KKK-style robes in brightly patterned fabrics. The figures are lined up in intersecting rows with books and articles scattered in cases around them. Each of the 52 robes was styled a different way; some had bows hanging from their necks and others had capes and bold lines. This was interesting because when I think of what the KKK stood for, it seems odd that African fabrics or black culture would be used to compliment anything that had to do with the terror of an entire race. It almost seemed wrong for such meaningful fabrics to be tainted by the hateful message associated with the KKK.

Perhaps the most disturbing and powerful aspect of the piece was the odd resemblance of some of the outfits to Sunday’s best . A few of the mannequins were dressed in suit-like ensembles with sharp, crisp lines. My first instinct was to think about the atrocities committed by white supremacists against black people in churches. Church, for a large number of black people, is a place to put grievances aside and focus on the positivity in life. Thinking of events such as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing (1963) and the Charleston Church Shooting (2015) make the piece much heavier for me–especially because churches should not be associated with racism, bigotry, and hate. Unfortunately, because the racially charged events that occur in black churches, I cannot help but link this piece to negativity within this space.

The cases surrounding the robes featured racist literature from Charles Carroll’s “The Negro a Beast.” The book even has a chapter entitled “Biblical and Scientific Facts Demonstrating that the Negro is not an Offspring of the Adamic Family.” There was a sureness to the all of the literature that shocked me. Seeing the verbiage used in the texts was frustrating because it made me think about how systems of oppression are justified under the guise of “science.” To me, the purpose of this piece was to make people uncomfortable – regardless of race. As an African woman, I was uncomfortable with seeing traditional cloths on figures that were supposed to represent anti-blackness. I imagine that other people may have been uncomfortable in other ways, depending on how familiar they are with black culture.

My last observation was that all of the people who were viewing Rucker’s piece when I was there were people of color. This made me think about one of the Race & Racism Project’s meetings, where we discussed the significance of audiences. Artwork like Rucker’s is meant to be educational and emotional, but with this comes feeling uncomfortable. The battle, in my opinion, is that artwork like “Storm in the Time of Shelter” can be so overwhelming that only people who have dealt with emotions of marginalization or feeling threatened because of your race may be comfortable with embracing them — regardless of how important the information is to everyone.