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Valdez Art Exhibit at W&L Draws Support from Across Campus

A new art exhibition in Washington and Lee University’s Staniar Gallery, “The Strangest Fruit,” will feature the work of Vincent Valdez, a widely recognized Texas-based artist. The exhibition will feature his 2013 series of large-scale oil on canvas paintings inspired by the little-known history of the many Mexicans and Mexican Americans lynched in the U.S. Southwest between 1848 and 1928.

In addition to the April 27–May 29 exhibition, an opening reception and artist’s talk will be held April 29 at 5:30 p.m. in Wilson Hall. Valdez also will perform with his eight-piece band, Ollin, in a multi-media event, “The Strangest Fruit Radio Hour,” in Keller Theater at W&L’s Lenfest Center for the Arts on May 20 at 6 p.m. The performance will be streamed live online. Ollin’s many influences include Texas two-step, swing, cumbia, klezmer, Mexican and Irish fused folk rock and roll. All events are free and open to the public.

The title of the exhibition refers to the anti-lynching poem “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol that was set to music and recorded by Billie Holliday in 1939. A complimentary bilingual Spanish/English catalogue is available at Staniar Gallery while supplies last.

The exhibition has received support from various university departments and organizations, as well as outside organizations, and is expected to attract students from across campus interested in art, history, culture, law and music. The project was organized by Clover Archer Lyle, director of the Staniar Gallery and Andrea Lepage, associate professor of art history at W&L.

Valdez presents Texas lynchings in a contemporary context by posing young modern Latino men against a stark white background as if they had been lynched, but with the noose erased. According to Valdez’s artist’s statement, “presenting this historical subject in a contemporary context enables me to present the noose both as a metaphor and to suggest that the threat of it still looms.” Valdez notes that the noose has been repackaged in more official ways such as stop and frisk policies, racial profiling and mass deportation.

“The series contains a powerful message and questions our ability to evolve as a nation without recognizing past discrimination and injustices,” observed Lepage. “You can stand in front of the paintings and appreciate them aesthetically, but there are also complex ideas to be drawn from the work.”

“I find the paintings both beautiful and disturbing at the same time,” added Archer Lyle. “This show combines art and history in a really impactful way and will give viewers a more textured sense of the story of the United States.” She also noted that bringing Valdez’ work to campus enables Staniar Gallery to continue its expansion as an important exhibition venue in the region.

Lepage’s spring term class ties in with the exhibition and is titled “Chicano and U.S. Latino Art and Muralism: From the Street to Staniar Gallery.” Her students will study closely a particular painting in the series and will have the opportunity to interview the artist. At the end of the term, the students will produce a gallery guide featuring their research, which will be available in time for graduation. “Staniar is a teaching gallery and this will be an incredible experience for the students,” noted Archer Lyle.

The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition was translated by students from W&L’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program and includes two scholarly essays in addition to Lepage’s article. William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, prominent scholars in the field, contributed “Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States: ‘The Strangest Fruit’ in Historical Context.”

Civil rights attorney Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a New York-based civil rights organization, also contributed an article and was a recent speaker for the Mudd Center’s “Race and Justice in America” series. W&L’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and School of Law provided financial support for the exhibition catalogue and law students hosted a lunch and discussion session with Cartagena. “The various programming around this exhibition provides an array of entrances into the artwork for law students and undergraduates,” commented Archer Lyle. “It’s essential that an academic gallery promote diverse perspectives and conversations around any body of artwork on exhibit.”

Staniar Gallery is located on the second floor of Wilson Hall in Washington and Lee University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, please call 540-458-8861 or visit the Staniar Gallery website and the artist’s website, vincentvaldezart.com/.

On-campus support for “The Strangest Fruit” came from Washington and Lee’s Pauline B. and Paul D. Pickens Endowment for the Performing Arts; The Roger Mudd Center for Ethics; Immigrant Rights Clinic; Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program; School of Law; Department of Music; Office of the Provost; Student Arts League; and Department of Theater, Dance and Film Studies.

“The Strangest Fruit” was made possible by funding from The Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.