City is Stage for "Philadelphia Assembled" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Assembled—a project consisting of actions, dialogues, performances, and installations—culminates this fall in an exhibition in which narratives of radical community building and active resistance will be assembled and performed. From September 10 through December 10, 2017, Philadelphia Assembled fills the Perelman Building’s galleries, café, gardens, and store with objects, documents, and performances that illuminate collective experiences of a number of communities across the city who are often marginalized, including African and African Americans, Indigenous peoples, immigrants and refugees, returning citizens, and the LGBTQ community. The exhibition offers an immersive and participatory experience reflecting the people, sights, sounds, and tastes of many aspects of a resilient city’s multifaceted identity, embracing the contributions generated by an extensive network of more than 150 collaborators. Initiated in 2013 by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, Philadelphia Assembled celebrates the work of storytellers, gardeners, healers, writers, artists and activists to present their vision of the city’s past and present and their dreams of shaping its future.
The public is invited to participate in the opening celebration, on September 9, 2017, from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. A day of workshops and activities will be followed by drumming, dancing, and a featured performance by sound artist, poet, and member of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective, Moor Mother. The celebration will conclude with an outdoor illumination of the Perelman Building at 8 p.m. Admission to the opening celebration is free. Admission to the Perelman Building throughout the run of the exhibition is Pay What You Wish.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and CEO, stated, “In 2013, we invited Jeanne van Heeswijk to consider how an artist might go about engaging Philadelphia’s many neighborhoods and diverse communities. What kinds of connections might she make?, we asked. And what issues and ideas would arise from this work? What began as a conversation has now grown, and it has been fascinating—and rewarding—to watch Philadelphia Assembled take on a life of its own as a collective work of art. As our galleries are appropriated to become a stage for the city itself, the project presents an opportunity to consider the different ways in which we might define the Museum’s roles and responsibilities as a civic institution in a changing city in the 21st century.”
Van Heeswijk’s work, often described as social practice or socially engaged art, brings together art and activism. The role of the individual artist dissolves into a wider, collective process of organizing, knowledge sharing, and momentum-building, crystallizing in moments and actions that shape awareness, discussion, and new realities. The artist began her journey into Philadelphia by holding a series of conversations with strangers, neighbors, and new acquaintances – forming a network of affinity through each encounter and connection. The formation of this network began with questions about the city’s spirit, and the Museum’s role in engaging it. Conversations then deepened toward visions of the city through the lens of acts of resilience. As the project’s network expanded and rooted, an artistic team formed, including Phoebe Bachman, project coordinator and artist; Kirtrina Baxter, community organizer and activist grower; Shari Hersh, Mural Arts senior project manager and founder of the Restored Spaces Initiative; Nehad Khader, film curator and artist; Mabel Negrete of the Counter-Narrative Society (CNS) and the Indigenous 215 Collective; Damon Reaves, associate curator of education, community engagement, and access; Amanda Sroka, assistant curator of contemporary art; and Denise Valentine, storyteller.
“We have been reimagining the Museum as a place to unearth stories hidden deep in the soil of Philadelphia,” said Valentine. “We envision a place where narratives of the enslaved, the incarcerated, the displaced, and the disenfranchised are held in as high esteem as Eurocentric ideas about art, history, and culture. The picture will not be complete until you add your own voice.”
Filling the first-floor galleries, the exhibition gives form to the community-based engagement of five core working groups, called atmospheres or atmospheres of democracy. The actions, preoccupations, and collaborations of these working groups are mapped in a panorama that extends the length of the Skylit Atrium, visualizing the project’s complex network of people, histories, and aesthetics. Measuring fifteen feet high and one hundred fifty feet long, the panorama’s five panels illuminate the focus of each atmosphere: reconstructions—engaging with questions around mass incarceration, reentry, gentrification, and displacement; sovereignty—exploring how we define self-determination and unity; sanctuary—asking how we form a true “Sanctuary City” through a layered understanding of self-care, asylum, and refuge; futures—reimagining our tomorrow through the reclamation and liberation of the past, present, and future; and movement—addressing the ways in which we facilitate action and collective learning. Underscoring each panorama section are timelines that amplify experiences and events that have been especially consequential for Philadelphia communities over time. Weekly public workshops provide an opportunity for visitors to add their personal and community timelines to the panorama. Also present in the atrium is a soapbox, to be used for intimate readings and performances, which is set against a backdrop evocative of the West Philadelphia home of African American performer, athlete, and activist Paul Robeson.
Like the city panorama, the exhibition spaces are also organized to reflect the work of these atmospheres.
Filling the Museum’s Levy Gallery is an installation shaped by the Sovereignty working group, exploring concepts of self-determination and unity as these subjects apply to personal experience, financial and business partnerships, and land ownership. These ideas are organized according to letters of the alphabet. A is for the African Cultural Art Forum, which in June, as part of the project’s programming, oversaw a large public “Sovereignty Marketplace” along 52nd Street in West Philadelphia, celebrating the street as a corridor of black-owned businesses. D is for doula, a totemic birthing chair sculpture measuring about 12 feet high that speaks to body sovereignty, created by Jeannine Kayembe of Urban Creators. This installation also reflects on the ways in which plants, seeds, and land deepen connections to ancestry and serve as vehicles for nourishment, healing, and future growth, illuminating activities created in collaboration with Urban Creators, Norris Square Neighborhood Project Gardens, Historic Fair Hill, and Stretch and Fly Youth Business Garden.
The Museum’s Spain Gallery is dedicated to the Reconstructions atmosphere, which has assembled personal and collective narratives of mass incarceration and gentrification. It reflects the group’s recent work with Reconstruction Inc. and the Alumni Ex-Offenders Association (AEA) in the Nicetown/Tioga neighborhood, where programs explored concepts of home, healing, and trauma in relationship to imprisonment and reentry. Events included a teach-in and a community-wide procession to illuminate the bridges leading to the neighborhood. The work of these organizations is presented in the gallery through objects from the AEA meeting space—such as a mirror, a mantelpiece, and two chairs—where its members will continue to hold meetings over the course of the exhibition. These objects and conversations are situated within the framework of an affordable house that occupies the center of the room, its open two-by-four structure speaking to the status of affordable housing in a fast-changing neighborhood. In Olde/South Kensington at 4th and Master Streets, where the framework was first erected, collaborators examined the impact of gentrification and displacement. They worked with the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, Healthy Rowhouse Project, Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Housing, and Tilmon Community Gardens to reimagine a community garden space as a dynamic place for programs, performances, and discussions. With its move to the Museum, the structure remains a platform for dialogues exploring connections between mass incarceration and displacement.
This installation occupies the Museum’s Collab Gallery, illuminating models of self-care, asylum, and refuge. Two domes—a small one constructed by artists and builders at Traction Company, and a second, larger one—serve as centers for storytelling, advocacy, direct action, and community building. Their walls are hung with elements from programs undertaken this spring with partner organizations including the Attic Youth Center, Laos in the House, New Sanctuary Movement, Prevention Point Philadelphia, and Project SAFE, engaging with subjects like the provision of LBGTQ safe spaces, issues of immigration and migration, and harm reduction relating to drug use and sex work. Measuring 20 feet in diameter, and hosted by dedicated Sanctuary Stewards, the larger dome is a space that visitors may enter to explore and discuss the meaning of a true “Sanctuary City.”
The Futures atmosphere includes a flexible workspace within a retrofitted shuttle bus called the Mobile Futures Institute, which is parked outside the Perelman Building. This institute is a meeting and learning space, lab, gallery, screening room, and library. In recent months, the bus traveled throughout the city, engaging in neighborhood-based programs focused on decolonization, environmental racism, and economic justice. Its partners include the Center for Returning Citizens, Community Futures Lab, the Friends Center, Granny Peace Brigade Philadelphia, Norris Square Community Alliance, Mighty Writers, and the Indigenous 215 collective, among others. Inside the Museum, Futures has a dedicated resource shelf, as well as a daily film program curated by Nehad Khader that features the counternarratives by which community members from the project’s network document, reclaim, and reimagine the city and its tomorrow.
The physical installation of Philadelphia Assembled at the Perelman Building began with the transportation of objects and conversations from Philadelphia Assembled locations across the city along routes set by artist collective Amber Art & Design. Photo documentation from these journeys is installed throughout the galleries alongside the objects that the artists carried to the Museum. Movement is the fifth atmosphere, focusing on the intersections of Sovereignty, Reconstructions, Sanctuary, and Futures through production, dissemination, and communication. This includes audio recordings, a dedicated film series, project-specific graphics, an interactive web platform, atmosphere-specific publications, and food. Visitors are invited to experience the project’s Kitchen during the run of the exhibition, realized in partnership with W/N W/N Coffee Bar. The Kitchen menus are developed in collaboration with local culinary artists and storytellers, featuring foods that speak to the subjects of survival, resilience, and victory. Another component of this atmosphere is the Youth Dream Trust, a young people’s coalition formed across the working groups in partnership with the Village of Arts and Humanities.
For Jeanne van Heeswijk, Philadelphia Assembled is a forward-moving dynamic in which she is one among many participants imagining the city’s futures together. She stated: “The work is trying to get to the essence of aesthetics, to understand it as an engaged, inclusive, and proactive practice. This type of work is about using imagination to better understand how we live together—rising, claiming, rooting, caring, and moving. It is not a comprehensive or single narrative, but it is offered through the lens of groups of people who are actively imaging the futures of Philadelphia as a collective exercise of care.”
The public is invited to join the conversation and engage with collaborators at the Philadelphia Assembled website and to share their experiences via #phlassembled @phlassembled @philamuseum.
For a full list of public programs and locations, visit the project website at phlassembled.net. All Philadelphia Assembled programs are free to the public unless noted otherwise.
Philadelphia Assembled is a project undertaken in collaboration with stakeholders from across the city and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The views expressed by individual participants or in materials developed as part of Philadelphia Assembled are representative of the project’s collective conception and production and are not, necessarily, the views of the Museum or any other individual involved.
This project is made possible by the William Penn Foundation, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, The Daniel W. Dietrich II Fund for Contemporary Art, Wyncote Foundation, The Arlin and Neysa Adams Endowment Fund, Nancy M. Berman and Alan Bloch, Lynne and Harold Honickman, Mr. and Mrs. Milton S. Schneider, Constance and Sankey Williams, the Mondriaan Fund, Lyn M. Ross, and The Netherland-America Foundation.
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