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PHILADELPHIA — Afaq is accustomed to the reactions inspired by her turban. Often, she says, people reach out to touch her head without permission—or they just ignore her, assuming that a black woman wearing a turban doesn’t speak English. It surprises people to learn that Afaq has spent most of her life in Northeast Philadelphia. Growing up, outside of a small community of other refugees from Darfur, other kids called her “burnt chocolate.” Fellow Muslims, primarily of Arab descent, didn’t recognize her turban as a hijab.
In April, Afaq picked up a digital camera and made the first of a series of self-portraits. She draped a swath of fabric around her head to match her sky blue turban, enveloping the lens in a color field pierced by her gaze. At the urging of a fellow artist, she printed out the photograph and submitted it, on the last possible day, to a crowd-sourced exhibition of Philadelphia artists at the Barnes Foundation, a storehouse of European paintings. When visitors voted the image among the top 20 of more than 300 works submitted, it was a victory for Afaq, who wants to make women who look like her more visible and more accepted in public space, as creators rather than curiosities.
“I’m choosing to make self-portraits so that I don’t feel like this about taking up space,” Afaq said.
Since February, Afaq has been a member of the Women’s Mobile Museum, an artists’ residency devised by the photographer Zanele Muholi and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC). Muholi is widely known in the international art world for her black-and-white portraits of LGBTQ women in South Africa, where queer and gender non-conforming women experience severe marginalization and are frequently the target of hate crimes. In 2016, when PPAC approached Muholi about doing a residency in Philadelphia, she responded by offering to help create and mentor a collective of Philly-based women like the one that helped her launch her career in Johannesburg in the 2000s.
“I didn’t want the space for me in Philadelphia — it’s not my space,” Muholi said. “There are so many creative minds out there who want an opportunity like this but have never had it.”
From an open call for applicants, ten women were selected to make up the Women’s Mobile Museum. For nearly nine months, they underwent a professional boot camp at PPAC, starting with technical workshops in digital camerawork, lighting and Photoshop and progressing to assembling and promoting an exhibition. (At the outset, the women were told there would be four exhibitions of their work — two at community centers, one at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and one at PPAC.)
Along the way, they met with curators at various Philadelphia museums, participated in public events and media interviews about the project. They also plunged into feedback sessions with London-based curator Renée Mussai and Muholi, who alternately provided encouragement and critique along with PPAC exhibitions and programs coordinator Lori Waselchuk, who organized the entire project. Each apprentice received a part-time wage for participating; some juggled other jobs, school, and family care. A therapist was on call in case the project’s intensive pace and expectations became overwhelming.
On September 22, the women opened their first exhibition at the Boys and Girls Club in Juniata Park, a North Philadelphia neighborhood far from the city’s major art institutions. Next to Afaq’s self-portraits, Carrie Anne Shimborski showed a photograph memorializing her brother Peske’s death from a heroin overdose in 2015. In the image, a black-and-white print of the last photo Shimborski made of her brother washes up — or, perhaps, away — on the banks of the Delaware River.
Muffy Ashley Torres stages her own body within the construction site of her childhood home, which was destroyed earlier this year when a new condominium building (an outcome of gentrification) collapsed onto it. Davelle Barnes probes the aftermath of her Army service, an experience that left her grappling with PTSD, along with exposure to racism and homophobia during “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Tash Billington builds the foundation of an archive of Philly natives with portraits of friends who have lived through adversities from poverty to incarceration. Andrea Walls takes on the health of the city’s Schuylkill River in a series of environmental photographs.
At the exhibition opening, Muholi was proud of what the women had accomplished. “This is important work for people to see, so I’m feeling good,” she said. The doors had just opened, but Muholi was already working on plans to exhibit the women’s photographs abroad in Johannesburg, and at venues in Brooklyn and Oakland. While the apprenticeship is largely over, the work of the Women’s Mobile Museum is just beginning.
“It’s just day one, but I’ve had multiple people say they feel seen in seeing me. I didn’t expect that reaction because it’s not the one I’m used to,” Afaq said at the opening. “It’s really different to have people grateful that I exist.”