Women’s History Month: Virginia Jackson Kiah

Kiah combined art & activism to make a difference & seal her spot in history
Published: Mar. 15, 2022 at 2:06 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - While not a Savannah native, the impact Virginia Jackson Kiah had on the hostess city during her time here is undeniable.

“Virginia Kiah is an artist, activist and really important part of the Savannah community,” said SCAD Museum of Art curator DJ Hellerman.

A community, the Baltimore native became ingrained in when she moved here in 1951, and shortly after, “she started a museum in her own house. A museum for the masses,” Hellerman says.

Something Kiah had once longed for herself.

“Kiah was not allowed to go into some museums because of racial policies and for her it was really important that anyone had access to art,” said Hellerman.

Virginia Kiah in her home
Virginia Kiah in her home(Savannah College of Art & Design)

Not only would they have access to it, but many would even become part of it.

“Virginia Kiah would paint anybody she came in contact with.” Hellerman said, “from figures and movie stars on television, to a portrait of her husband, to a hardware shop owner in south Savannah.”

Painting those who often went unseen, by others and even themselves.

“For Virginia Kiah an act of portraiture was an act of intention,” said Hellerman.

Finding the beauty within, “you’d focus on somebody who was in front of you,” Hellerman continued.

Showing that beauty to the world, and perhaps more importantly to themselves.

Kiah would continue her art and activism alongside the Savannah College of Art & Design, where she would receive an honorary doctorate from in 1986.

SCAD Savannah – Spring 1986 – Commencement – Speaker Coverage – Virginia Kiah
SCAD Savannah – Spring 1986 – Commencement – Speaker Coverage – Virginia Kiah(SCAD)

“I think Virginia Kiah and SCAD were kindred spirits. Their interests in imagination and dreaming are what brought them together,” said Hellerman.

Then in 1993, the woman who was once denied entrance to museums would have a museum named for her.

SCAD Museum of Art dedicated to Kiah
SCAD Museum of Art dedicated to Kiah(Sam Bauman WTOC)

Her name etched in history, not because it’s now on a building, or even because of how well she painted, but rather because she realized how important each and every small stroke was to the bigger picture.

“I think for Virginia Kiah if you want to have an impact, the impact starts with yourself and the relationships you have in the community. So, if you want to change the world, for Kiah, it was doing that one on one, every single day with anybody you come into contact with,” said Hellerman.

If you’d like to learn more about Virginia Kiah and her work SCAD has created an Online Exhibit for her.

Click here to check it out.

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