It’s fitting that the first artwork I encounter in Inheritance, Kim Rice’s solo exhibition at the Peale Center, involves a last will and testament. Hanging from the ceiling, a slightly yellowed map of the thirteen colonies has been laboriously cut into with text from the will of one William Lewis Venable of Haymarket, Virginia, settling up his estate. The map looks like it was liberated from some long-vacant primary school classroom. A light shines and creates a shadow on the wall behind, making the excised text more legible and less distracted by the noisy map terrain. Scanning the text, my eye lands on the phrase “give my wife Frances W. Venable all of the negroes that I received.”
The plain, cruel passive voice in that phrase, “that I received,” is loud in this otherwise empty room. It obfuscates the violence of this action and exculpates the actors—not unlike the way journalists use the passive voice when talking about police shootings. Of course, in the case of Venable’s will, this likely wasn’t intentional rhetoric, but it shows how centuries of colonizing and subjugating other humans have oriented white people to regard themselves as superior to the “other.” White supremacy is the air: it is something lots of white people hardly think about until asked, directed, or forced to do so.
Instead of obscuring or running from or being immobilized by these implications, as white people are wont to do, artist Kim Rice uses them as the substance of her multimedia weaving and cut-paper installations. Taking a broad view of institutional and systemic racism as well as a close look at her own personal, familial culpability (William Lewis Venable was one of her ancestors, a 4th-great-grandfather on her father’s side), Rice examines the way that white Americans have been able to build wealth and power while Black families have been decimated under the same systems.
Adjacent to the map piece hangs a large poster that quotes “The Case for Reparations,” the 2014 essay in which Ta-Nehisi Coates outlines how the practice of redlining allowed white Americans to build wealth through homeownership, while cutting off Black Americans from doing the same through predatory agreements and denial of legitimate mortgages. In this excerpt, Coates condemns the “laments about ‘black pathology,’ […] in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America’s relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer.” Redlining and racial residential segregation flourished legally with the National Housing Act of 1934 and the establishment of the Federal Housing Administration. The practice continued until the Fair Housing Act made it illegal in 1968, but its effects are still visible today as many redlined and historically Black neighborhoods across the country remain segregated and deprived of resources.