/movement jan 2 '18
A friend recently commented on the impossibility of change, until it happens. To create realities is an immense undertaking, but it’s those small, seemingly unattached victories that weave the webs we now call history. I spend a lot of energy diverting my attention from art museums, finding discomfort in the stolen works and discordance of class. There is an eerie repetition of Black security guards and Eurocentric halls with gazing onlookers that leaves me feeling unsettled. Philadelphia Assembled took the coattails of that story and started a new pattern. At the Perelman Building, the main site of Philadelphia Assembled, the camaraderie of who and what was inside made room for a different story.
The practice of utopia is brave and illusive. Trying to build off of group ideals comes with a host of challenges, especially facing the newness of available space and a captive audience. To be simultaneously accommodating and honest within the confines of someone else’s guidelines is no easy task. The intent of change was laid out on the tenuous wires of policy makers’ attention, would-be gentrifiers, and those fighting for rights on their own land. When we are taught the basic necessities of life in elementary school, we do not talk about racial and gender inequality. There are no teachings of prison systems, having food and four walls, or encroachment upon territorial boundaries pushing families from their homes. We learn through storytelling, generational disposition, and the way time moves through space. What went on within the time frame of February 2016 through December 2017, was anything but linear. It was a public soirée into the ancestral pain and modern experience of systemic struggle, growth, and ingenuity.
There was so much to take in that is so often kept under wraps. Experiencing Philadelphia Assembled has been a transmorphic process of links becoming ties. Seeing the efforts of those involved with this project made it tangibly clear that the people we are fighting for are not some abstract constellation of worries and cries, but in fact, ourselves and those we hope to spend most of our time with. Artists like Charlyn Griffith, Jeannine Betu Kayembe, and Bri Barton were able to take impossible fragments and turn them into something feasible - from a panorama, to a birthing chair, to a coloring book. Philadelphia Assembled was painful, in the sense that when approaching sickness, there is a great deal for the body to process and transpose into viable health.
Some of the project's long-standing visuals had people calling for change. I saw visitors cry, frozen in place in front of walls of tall paintings, defaming racism's systematic subjugation of young Black boys. I saw people giggle in the courtyard as little boys ran around and around and around, until the ground caught them in their dizzy phase. The forethought of transposing pain and information was given in the form of Sanctuary; a space devised to help navigate the question of how to make change sustainable. I firmly believe that we cannot make sustainable change if we do not take care of ourselves and each other. There was sensitivity shown towards human capacity to hold shared trauma; having a designated area for conversations around self-determination lifted up by myth, celebration of the sexual self, and Philadelphia’s standing as a sanctuary city.
Our need to be nourished in the most physical ways was taken care of in the Kitchen. The food in the Kitchen was beautiful. It made you eat slow. It came from so many people making names out of flour, and communal sovereignty from salt. Every time I got a taste, I think I gained a couple years. The Rebel Crumbles of Rebel Ventures had the familiarity of a coffee cake, spiced with youth ambition. Rising from the bubbling talents of a holistic business model for young entrepreneurs, the morsel was made sweeter by its re-circulation into the well-being of Philadelphia school children. The Kashmiri pink chai made kindly by Madura was sweet and un-co-opted, in a world that is full of mass appropriation of Indian cultures, quick-draw coffee shops, and vacancies amidst historical context.
It was the ponderance in Kitchen space that really made me believe that change like this could be possible. If we can feed each other, and actually fulfill our needs without false narratives, perhaps we can feel well in a steady way. It didn’t hurt that each bite of every meal came with a sensation that struck the nerves from head to toe. That feeling reiterated throughout the several months in and out of PHLA.
As a city wide project involving some of Philadelphia’s most active community members, PHLA engaged neighbors and neighborhoods throughout the city. Teach-ins communicated the harrowing realities of gentrification zones. Many newcomers learned about the long standing traditions of redlining tied up in Philadelphia’s development practices, from the time of Edmund Bacon, on. Denise Valentine made hymnals to the swallowed stories of enslaved Africans, deeply connected to Philadelphia, at the Fairhill Burial Grounds. Stones didn’t sit long enough to gather moss, as the gears kept turning in Philadelphia’s creatives.
This venturous exhibition has made me question how and where I sit in the city’s warmth. At a time when Philadelphia is on fire, PHLA has been both shelter and windstorm. The unending fear of institutionalized “isms” forever looms like a ghost, but with the strength of every effort put into this project, it is impossible to let that fear consume. People know each other now. There is a recognition of ancestry and how our histories have led us to this sanctuary city and left out many others. Many of us are not fearful at all, but assured in our right to be reimbursed what was taken and returned our voices for what was never lost.
This project has left me to ponder if this is what happens when we have land to grow on. Do we make things beautiful because we believe in the power of collective effort? No doubt there have been hitches and bumps, conflict that resonates, and feelings of more to be desired. There is still room for more. My hope is that the Perelman has been nurtured beyond the point of no return. That the richness and value of all these laboring, loving, at times even agonizing hands, has made an impact celebrated through continued support. The building does not fall now, it is revived with rejuvenating hard work, and harkened back to the Museum's first bricks, designed by architects, Julian Abele and Horace Trumbauer.
Our collective memory has documented the experience. Now, we keep moving.