Throughout Richmond’s history, newcomers — whether from another country or just another city — have brought their own perspectives and traditions that enrich our culture. So it goes for the burgeoning arts scene here.
Asiya Al-Sharabi (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Asiya Al-Sharabi: Pictures of the Present
When civil strife and conflict wreck your country, you are left with few options. In Yemen, photographer Asiya Al-Sharabi says, “the war corrupted not just my ability to make art but to live. I had the option to either stay and lock myself in or find a way to continue.”
She came to the United States in August of 2013 to gain an education and learn from other artists — both of which now are impossible in her native country. She works as a photojournalist, but she also has turned her lens to art photography in an effort to capture the energy and personality of Yemeni women who are, through cultural strictures, not allowed to be photographed. “Every picture I took, I had to show them how it looks, assure them that their identity will not be revealed,” she says.
Al-Sharabi, 43, with her husband and two children, moved from Woodbridge to Richmond last year. She joined Art Works in the Manchester neighborhood and exhibited there. The cultural life of the region attracted her, along with the stories of its past. “Richmond is associated with crimes in history and trouble — but it is also a beautiful city,” Al-Sharabi says. “It is like gold covered with dust. You move the dust away and the gold shines.”
As part of her new life of education and expression, she’ll participate this spring in a three-week program at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center near Aspen, Colorado, which gives her the opportunity to collaborate with other artists. She wants her next body of work to address what is nearest to her. She’s still determining how she will do that. “I have a mission to impact Arab women in the world of art culture,” she says. “Women have worked very hard to overcome many challenges in my country. What’s happening there is affecting all of us.”
Al-Sharabi does not know how long she’ll be able to stay in Richmond, but during this time, she intends to make the most of the opportunity.
“I am in love with the place,” she says.
Rayfield with his painting “Seedtime and Harvest” (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Stanley Rayfield: An Artist’s Faith
New Orleans native Stanley Rayfield didn’t set out to paint. A decade ago, when just a freshman at Henrico High School’s Center for the Arts, Rayfield felt ambivalent about an art career. Today, his “Black Jesus” is in the permanent collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and five more pieces were collected by the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia.
The family relocated to Richmond for his father’s graduate studies and employment with the state. Then he was laid off. “And at the same time [my father’s] health fell apart,” Rayfield says. “I saw him in a bad place, but he always had faith on the inside. It was a blessing in disguise. Henrico County Public Schools were better than New Orleans.”
Rayfield enjoyed drawing, but he didn’t understand creativity as a way to make a living. Jeff Hall, a lead teacher at the Center for the Arts, encouraged his work and Rayfield applied to Virginia Commonwealth University. At the time, he wasn’t interested in art history or fine art, and illustration to him meant children’s books. Then, Hall showed him advertising annuals. “And I realized these people were amazing,” he says. “And I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” Through scholarships and grants, he pursued a bachelor of fine arts in Communication Arts and graduated in 2009. “I got into illustration, but by the time I graduated, I found I was a painter at heart.” he says. “Figuration was my strength. I became a fine artist, I but didn’t have a portfolio.”
Rayfield, 28, started spending time in the VMFA’s European galleries — “the big paintings of allegory, the Bible, the work of the Renaissance into the 1800s.” Meanwhile, he continued working in portraiture and iconographic imagery. Rayfield’s “The Death of Radio Raheem” became a dominating image at the block party that filmmaker Spike Lee held in New York City in 2014 for the 25th anniversary of “Do the Right Thing.” Along the way, he’s shown works of pencil and oil on canvas, at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and the Pentagon in Washington.
Rayfield attributes his outgoing personality to his family’s New Orleans roots. Colors reminiscent of the Big Easy also show up in his paintings. “As I got older and visited back home, I noticed how a lot of the paintings I made would have the exact same colors I would see around the French Quarter.”
From Feb. 5 to 26, Glavé Kocen Gallery is showing work by Henrico High Center for the Arts alumni. For Rayfield, who started in art there while not even knowing if the pursuit was for him, the exhibition is confirmation of his decision, and in his faith that if he chose well and worked hard, the spirit would guide him.
Westergard and his mural “Within” (Photo by Jay Paul)
Nils Westergard: Wall to Wall
He grew up in Falls Church, a tagger and graffiti artist with abundant talent who wanted to make art on some of the biggest canvases he knew: the walls of city buildings. But when Nils Westergard came to VCU, he found that he couldn’t use spray paint indoors. And thus he graduated in 2014 with a bachelor of fine arts in film. In his three-minute animated film “Wallflower,” Richmond’s alleyways and back streets serve as the backdrop for more than 1,900 cut-out paper figures, murals and spray paint. Westergard wants to create another animated film, but that requires not just money, but time. “Wallflower” took a solid year with the assistance of friends.
In the meantime, the streets are his gallery. Westergard’s works there include “Within” at Lombardy Street and Floyd Avenue — a looming, hooded figure whose eyes are covered by hands — and “Icarus Fallen,” in which a wet-haired, downcast young woman contemplates a fallen bird behind 821 Café on West Cary Street. His work, however, isn’t exclusive to Richmond: this past year, Westergard traveled to 15 European countries.
When he tells people he’s from Richmond, among fellow street artists anyway, the recognition is immediate: “Oh, Strawberry Girl!” referring to Etam Cru’s huge “Moonshine” mural of a woman basking in a jar of strawberries at 1011 W. Grace St.
His mother is from Ghent, Belgium, where his grandfather Jose de Mey (1928 to 2007) achieved distinction as an “Op” artist who depicted fantastical imagery in a photo-realistic style. His studio remains, and when in Ghent, Westergard visits it. His father is also a painter, thus, art is a natural expression.
He considers residing in Richmond a massive advantage. Westergard can afford to live and devote himself to his work. “I’m not stumbling home exhausted at 3 in the morning from a bar job and too tired to get into the studio,” he says.
His smaller studio works — usually spray paint on reclaimed wood with found frames — often feature single faces split between emotions or eerily obscured by hair or mystical hands. There are militant police, too, roughing up protestors and individuals in the shadows of concertina wire and prison walls. Most of his work gets shown in Europe and Australia. But he also travels the United States making murals. “You don’t get paid to paint on the wall; you’re compensated for the paints and maybe renting the lift,” he explains.
If it were up to him, there’d be murals on every corner in Richmond. The city getting its walls tattooed as a result of the National Harbor, Maryland-based Art Whino Gallery’s Richmond Mural Project and G40 Art Summit, and the homegrown RVA Street Art Festival, has caused both an acceptance of the work and a pushback about its proliferation.
Not so much at Art Basel in Miami, where to some dismay, the work is getting underwritten by corporate sponsorship. Westergard shakes his head. “It’s crazy and inspiring to experience the energy there, but when companies are supporting graffiti …” his voice trails off.
A corporate blessing may seem incongruous with the street-art aesthetic. In some European venues, formerly dilapidated buildings undergoing renovation are touted for their edgy outdoor adornment. “Some artists are going back at night and blacking out their work because they don’t want to be associated with the forces of gentrification,” Westergard says. “Without counter-culture, there’s no culture.”