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These are their own monuments


PHILADELPHIA – In a part of north Philadelphia, near an underground passage and on a vertiginous front steps painted in sky blue, Mrs Nandi’s house is decorated with photos of civil rights heroes and political icons – Malcolm X, the Queen Nefertiti, Lenin. Here, for about 20 years, Denise Muhammad, known to everyone as Mrs. Nandi, and her husband, Khalid, have run a neighborhood children’s candy store in their living room before, but it has done a lot more than sell Tootsie Rolls. .

If the children could not count their change, the couple would teach them. If they couldn’t read a quote from Marcus Garvey on the wall, they would help them learn to read. “Ask any kid in the neighborhood where Ms. Nandi’s house is,” she said recently. “They will know.”

Ms. Nandi is a pillar of the community that many residents refer to as Fairhill-Hartranft, and one of the inspirations behind a new exhibit called “Staying Power”. The show, which opened on May 1 in several green spaces, presents a series of monuments cultivated on site by artists to residents who have helped uplift the citizens of these communities, where life expectancy is low, levels of d incarceration is high and gentrification is shifting. people.

No granite or bronze, these new monuments from Deborah Willis, Sadie Barnette, Ebony G. Patterson, Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist, and Black Quantum Futurism, consist of outdoor sculptures and photographs, storefront activations and performance. When I visited before the opening, banners were unfurled, lights hung, and parks swept away with debris.

“It’s a place to understand how residents of many generations have maintained their stamina despite the systemic forces that undermine them,” says Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and research studio that is based in Philadelphia. devotes to examining how the story is told to the audience. landscape.

Monument Lab designed and curated the exhibit alongside residents and the Village for the Arts and Humanities – a non-profit arts organization that runs cultural programs and manages several parks in the area.

The story of Ms. Nandi’s candy store has informed at least three of the “Staying Power” facilities. Barnette has created a fantastic living room in a storefront along Germantown Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. It is a tribute to “the institution of family lounges,” as a place of solace and healing in times of crisis, Barnette said. Patterson created a series of banners featuring headless women in richly modeled settings, honoring those who nurtured the community but who nonetheless suffered violence and trauma.

Willis, who grew up some 25 blocks from Fairhill-Hartranft, photographed female entrepreneurs and their homes, including a baker, Tamyra Tucker, event planner Aisha Chambliss – and Ms Nandi.

When artists Bowles and Strandquist began to consider the idea of ​​staying in power, they took a different approach by asking themselves, “who is missing?” The couple collaborated with five women – four of them previously incarcerated – to create a sculpture that celebrates their ongoing crusade to end life sentences in Pennsylvania. Images of the women appear in towering portraits, displayed around a crown-shaped structure, while 200 lights hang above them – a memorial to women still serving life sentences, 54 of whom are from Philadelphia.

While Bowles and Strandquist’s work represents dozens of Philadelphia women, Black Quantum Futurism, the Afro-Futurist collective created by social practice artists Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa, hopes their monument will capture voices from the neighborhood and beyond. . Taking the form of a 7-foot grandma’s clock, the towering shape houses an oral history booth where residents can record their stories and share their desires for the future. It is, in fact, a monument that listens.

‘Staying Power’ provides a platform for local voices in other ways: it includes a whole range of programs, performances and research initiatives – including one led by Ms. Nandi, who, as paid curator, will ask families about their experiences as homeschooled children during the pandemic.

It is not unusual for community members to have this level of involvement in a project organized by the Village, which has its closest parallels in the non-profit organizations Project Row Houses in Houston and the Heidelberg Project. in Detroit. For Farber of Monument Lab, this holistic approach to community development has made the Village the ideal partner for thinking about “which stories, and therefore which people, have a say in the evolution of a city”.

A five-minute walk from Ms. Nandi’s house, a patchwork of green spaces with wavy walls encrusted with mosaics and vivid murals on the walls – Yoruba, Christian, Islamic, Chinese – leads to the village. It was here, more than 50 years ago, that Arthur Hall, a visionary teacher of West African dance and music, planted a seed with the Black Humanitarian Center of Ile Ife, which has become a hub. of the black arts movement in the late 1960s and 1970s.

At the time, the green spaces surrounding the building were wasteland where houses had burned down. “It was dust, rubble, no trees,” said village executive director Aviva Kapust, pointing to the park adjacent to the organization’s main building. In 1986, Hall invited Chinese artist Lily Yeh to the neighborhood to work with her friend, local bricklayer JoJo Williams, to transform the vacant lots. She started by inviting the local children to discuss what was missing. “They said trees,” Kapust said, “so she drew a big circle in the earth and they built the Tree of Life sculpture.”

Real trees followed, as did local landmarks – murals and sculptures made of furniture encased in concrete and decorated with mosaic patterns. When Hall left Ile Ife in 1988, he entrusted it to Yeh, who made it the Village of Arts and Human Sciences and broadened its mission to include the development of green spaces in the footprint of old dwellings.

Today, Hall’s legacy and what came from it is still a source of strength, pride and identity in Philadelphia. A metal plaque bearing his name and his story is planted on the sidewalk next to the village. “Every time I read it, I smile,” said Ivy Johnson, home health aide and prison reform advocate – and one of the women who appears (and collaborated on) at the Bowles and Strandquist monument.

Now, Johnson’s image will also appear in one of the village parks and include a recording of his voice, as well as poetry written by women in prison. Johnson was jailed for 18 years and writing poetry was her outlet in a particularly dark time. Making art from her experience is a form of healing, she said.

Perhaps this is what underlies “Staying Power”: the belief that giving people access to the stories of the public landscape, to the legacies of those who have blazed the trail of self-determination, can make a material difference in life. life of residents. As exhibition co-curator Arielle Julia Brown said, a key part of what persistence means is having what she calls “stories of choice” on hand.

With this exhibition and its work in the broad sense, the Village hopes to bring about a concrete change. A series of free newspapers published in tandem with the show will highlight local advocacy efforts, such as the fight to reopen a recreation center that was closed in the 1980s. The organization is funding research by community on alternatives to policing and runs radiation clinics to help people clear their criminal records. The exhibit is not about “capitalizing on people’s stories,” Kapust said, but “showcasing a series of investments in people, in real revitalization efforts”.

Congressman Brendan Boyle, who represents Pennsylvania’s Second District – where the village is located – said in an email: “I commend those who are willing to devote their time to helping reduce recidivism rates and providing counseling. support services that can help people change their lives. These organizations are a secondary safety net where, too often, we find those falling due to systemic tears in our existing social safety net. But he added, “Genuine reform can only be achieved with the commitment and leadership of state and local governments, the federal government, and community organizations – all working in tandem.”

Marc Handelman, director of the department of art and design at Rutgers University, agrees that art cannot have as much of an impact as legislation. “But on the other hand, I am convinced that society cannot be challenged and changed without art,” he said. “What the Arts and Humanities Village does shouldn’t even be considered progressive. Its scale is local and the intimacy through which its work is done is deep, direct and necessary.

For Rasheedah Phillips, who works as a full-time real estate equity lawyer while shedding light on half of dark quantum futurism, the work of art and advocacy can converge. Phillips worked alongside the People’s Paper Coop to push through laws that would prevent the use of criminal records in employment decisions and eviction cases used by landlords to deny people housing.

Through their monument, Black Quantum Futurism hopes to give visitors to the neighborhood the opportunity to use their voices to share memories and dreams – thus honoring oral traditions of the African diaspora. Submissions to the oral history booth will ultimately live in an online archive.

In a city where the murals were destroyed by luxury housing, the villages remained. “In all the years they’ve been there,” Ms. Nandi said, “they’ve never been graffiti. They weren’t torn apart. They were not spray painted. The children helped put them together. So they can literally say it’s ours. I had my hands in it. I painted, I cleaned, I helped build the trees.



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