Art Matters by Rhinold Lamar Ponder, Class of 1981 Founder, Art Against Racism
Nothing fuels life like considerations of mortality. A grown man, I laid curled up next to my ailing mother in her small bed. From her cramped bedroom, once maid quarters, I could see the stove, several feet away, where mom had once again repeated her words and lost her sense of time and place. By the time she died of cancer in 2002, I had realized I needed to return to my childhood passion, one that she supported and encouraged unwaveringly—art.
As I grow older, I have found a fulfillment in creating that I did not find as a lawyer; I have also grown to understand that art can be a tool to empower individuals and build community. During the pandemic, after the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd in May 2020, I founded Art Against Racism (AAR), a Princeton-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit. AAR’s mission is to leverage art to educate communities about racism and inspire the creation of an anti-racist society. For our first exhibition, Memorial. Monument. Movement, AAR joined forces with a cadre of notable artists, administrators, and organizations, and with the support of Rutgers University, we established a virtual exhibition of work—public and private—created around the world in response to police killings of BIPOC people.
The previous year, Art Against Racism was a successful Princeton-Trenton area-wide series of exhibitions and programs supported by local organizations and churches, including McCarter Theatre, Morven Museum, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Princeton, and Princeton United Methodist Church. For me, the highlight was Sunday breakfasts, which were hosted by predominantly white churches for predominantly Black and brown congregations, resulting in ongoing relationships and joint programs.
One of the many influences for Memorial. Monument. Movement was the cultural shift on Princeton’s campus as exemplified by the student challenges to the University’s iconography as well as the completion of the Lewis Center for the Arts in 2017. Perhaps the most impactful events for me were two exhibitions in 2017–18 at the Princeton University Art Museum: Making History Visible, featuring work by Titus Kaphar, and Picturing Protest—both of which raised issues regarding the relationship between art and social change.
Recently, I was included in efforts undertaken by the University, with the Museum in a leading role, to change the campus iconography to reflect and embrace the diversity of its community. A painting from my series And Still We Thrive is part of the juried exhibition of works by twenty-one Princetonian artists on view at Prospect House until it closes for renovation in 2023. The placement of the work, previously exhibited at the Lewis Center during the 2019 “Thrive“ conference for Black alumni, has special meaning for me since my wedding took place at Prospect House in 1998.
Still, when I visited Prospect during Reunions, I was most excited by the huge hole in the ground nearby where the reconstructed Art Museum designed by Sir David Adjaye will rise. Where some may see a hole signifying something missing in the community, the closure of the museum on campus has given us an opportunity to see the Princeton University Art Museum as more than a building: Its foundation is people dedicated to using art to build community and facilitate relationships more broadly.
This fall the Museum will be a sponsor of the Art Council of Princeton’s groundbreaking exhibition Retrieving the Life and Art of James Wilson Edwards and a Circle of Black Artists: Rex Goreleigh, Hughie Lee Smith, Selma Hortense Burke, and Wendell T. Brooks, curated by Judith Brodsky, distinguished professor emerita, Department of Visual Arts, Rutgers University, and me. The exhibition focuses on five Black artists who lived and worked within twenty-five miles of one another from Princeton, New Jersey, to New Hope, Pennsylvania. These artists represent a diverse and vibrant regional arts community largely ignored in contemporary American art history. On November 3, the Museum will sponsor and host, at its Art on Hulfish site in downtown Princeton, the symposium “How Museums Are Diversifying Their Collections to Include Black and Brown Artists,“ featuring a panel of major art administrators and curators.
Earlier this year, as an extension of the Museum’s support of local institutions, Judith and I offered a preview of the program to the new Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) during its inaugural Juneteenth program. SSAAM is dedicated to restoring, preserving, and sharing local history of the African American community in the Sourland Mountain region.
I look forward to more organizations around the world viewing art as a force multiplier, a way to build community and to empower others to create a more socially and economically just society.
Rhinold Lamar Ponder, Class of 1981
Founder, Art Against Racism