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PHILADELPHIA — Unless you were born without a heart, Philadelphia Assembled, an exhibition on civic engagement initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will very likely provoke tears. The first time I felt a swell of emotion was when I heard the distinct sound of Nina Simone’s voice emanating from one of the rooms in the exhibit. She was singing the phrase, “between the garbage and the flowers,” from her cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
By this point, I’d spent about forty-five minutes in a room devoted to Jeffrey Stockbridge’s Kensington Blues, a series of photographs taken in the area around Kensington Avenue, in North Philadelphia, which was once a strong working class community and national leader of the textile industry. For many residents of the city, Kensington Avenue is now synonymous with vice, a place where heroin, crack, and Xanax are sold in the open. Rather than simply mirroring the stereotypes of drug addiction and prostitution, Stockbridge urges the viewer to see into the lives of people who are suffering.
On one gallery wall, three long rows of portrait photos are interspersed with photos of abandoned lots and the shadowy world under the Market-Frankford line, also known as the El. In one portrait, a shirtless man in his thirties has the tanned outline of a tank top, accentuating the paleness of his skin. Tattooed around his neck and down his chest is an elaborate cross necklace. A hypodermic needle sits tucked into his elastic waistband, and track marks line his forearms. He seems to be posturing, but there’s nothing romantic in his gaze.
Interviews conducted by Stockbridge with his subjects play from headphones at both ends of the rows of photos. Many of Stockbridge’s participants are startlingly candid about their lives. One woman said she had returned to prostitution after raising her three children and the death of her most recent long-term partner, because she didn’t want shift work. She wanted control over her schedule, even at the risk of pain. These recordings also pick up the routine sounds of the street: the rumble of the El, cars honking, stray riffs of music, and the din of passing voices.
Across the room from Stockbridge’s work are two geodesic domes built by Traction Company, an artist collective based in West Philadelphia, modeled on wats, the style of Buddhist temple found in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Philadelphia, since the 1970s, has been a destination for Southeast Asian refugees, and to this day defends its status as a Sanctuary City.
As a response to increased pressure from the Trump administration to undermine sanctuary cities, Traction built “Toward Sanctuary” (2017), which measures 30 feet in diameter. The collective’s intention was to create “a forum to discuss, ideate, dream, and collectively imagine sanctuary in Philadelphia.” (Just recently, ICE agents came to the city and removed 107 immigrants, the largest number in a ten city sweep.) The juxtaposition of Stockbridge’s photographs and interviews with Traction’s geodesic domes drives home the idea that without humane intervention, refugees are almost guaranteed a painful life and demise.
Within the smaller of the domes is a table and stool, along with slips of paper and an invitation to Lao visitors to write about which state they moved to first, what they remember about their first day of school, as well as whether or not they’d ever been sent to prison camp. Although the responses are ensconced in a box on the table, the questions should give visitors pause to reflect on their own life experiences.
The movement of people and taking of land are perhaps the most consistent themes in Philadelphia Assembled, which is predicated on five principles: Reconstructions; Sovereignty; Sanctuary; Futures; and Movement. A detailed, three-section timeline near the visitor’s desk chronicles the history of migration and colonialism, as well as progressive movements devoted to the advancement of people of color. Admirably, this timeline isn’t soft on who did what to whom. It plainly states, for instance, that colonists took land from the Lenni Lenape, the Native American tribe then inhabiting the area of present-day Philadelphia.
The timeline is filled with many useful pieces of information, such as the fact that around the year 1300 there was a population of 80,000 people living in the Mississippian city of Cahokia, located in present day southern Illinois. There are so many details on the chronology that it’s easy to miss this one. But its inclusion renders null and void the notion that North America was a blank slate waiting to be filled with Europeans.
Like most large museum shows, Philadelphia Assembled aims to educate, enrich, and inspire, but it is also designed to agitate its viewers in order to organize them towards improved communal ends.
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” lays out the principles of non-violent campaigns, when he writes, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” Philadelphia Assembled offers a collection of the facts. These facts are meant to create a sense of tension within the minds of the exhibition’s visitors— people who most likely have the luxury to visit the institution in the first place. This exhibition differentiates itself by not putting pleasure as its end goal, risking the discomfort of the PMA’s guests.
Later, King writes, “…Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal[.]” Philadelphia Assembled strives towards this goal, but ultimately its location in the Perelman Building limits its scope and power.
The middle room of the exhibition challenges the visitor to consider the legacy of excessive incarceration rates, as well as notions of home and financial security. A map of Pennsylvania fills one large wall; its only landmarks are prisons, with the number of inmates from Philadelphia and distance in miles to these facilities from the city listed below each prison’s name. An accompanying series of Polaroid portraits of inmates provides information on how long they’ve been imprisoned — an overwhelming number of middle-aged adults in these images have been incarcerated since their late teens. These portraits are part of a project sponsored by Reconstruction Inc.’s Fight for Lifers program, which aims to abolish life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Abutting the map of Pennsylvania are dozens of signs typical of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods: “We Buy Houses $CASH$,” “Sell Your House In 9 Days,” as well as some with a more personal touch, for example, “ANNA BUYS HOUSES.” The wall of signs makes a surprisingly powerful statement about the nature of capitalism and inequality. The offers prey upon those who are financially disadvantaged and are looking for a way out, while buyers with financial means can flip the homes for double, triple, or even quadruple the price.
The exhibition’s third room focuses on self-determination and unity. One of the most powerful expressions of these ideas occurs with the exhibits on black-owned businesses, such as Freedom Paper Company LLC, which manufactures personal paper products, as well as the company African Black Soap. As Freedom Paper points out on their website, toilet paper is “something we all need and we all use.” Their business model hinges on empowering the black community.
There is also a small exhibit on the Mariposa Food Co-op, which started as a buying club in 1971. Cooperatively owned grocery stores help to build and generate wealth within the community, as well as stave off the threat of a “food desert,” a condition the USDA defines as any area lacking in fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods, as a result of chain grocery stores abandoning those communities.
The ambition of Philadelphia Assembled — “to collectively imagine our futures” — is truly astounding. For the PMA to support a show that encourages visitors “to rise from the bondage of myths and half truths” and to initiate collective action reminded me that this crucial work is never done. Collective action has always been necessary; the current administration has only accentuated the need for it.
As much as I want to praise the PMA for Philadelphia Assembled, it also occurs to me that locating this exhibition in the Perelman building, which is separated by two large roads from the main building, relegates the show to the margins. What type of visitor will go to the Perelman for Philadelphia Assembled? I’ll put my money on those who are already inclined towards socially engaged art. For Philadelphia Assembled to have greater resonance, to challenge spectators in productive ways, it should be located in the PMA’s main building. The PMA should have reached beyond its own perceived limitations as a cultural institution and provided the organizers with a larger public platform on which to promote collective action.
Philadelphia Assembled continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 10.