Perspectives on Philadelphia: Art, Culture and Curatorial Practice
On Friday, May 6 MoCADA’s Curatorial Fellows embarked on a Curatorial Intensive to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. MoCADA’s Director of Exhibitions, Kalia Brooks and Director of Education, Ruby Amanze, both of whom hail from the city of brotherly love, planned a 12 hour day of studio visits, meetings with arts professionals, and trips to local arts and African Diaspora institutions. The trip was a hands-on tool for conducting curatorial research and gaining a broad understanding of Philadelphia’s arts and cultural sectors. The itinerary included an array of field work, and throughout the day, central themes and framing questions emerged. First, what is the artistic and political value of collecting? To what extent can curating serve as a political intervention into a space? What role does technology play in emerging curatorial practices? And finally, what are the political implications of distinguishing between art spaces and ethnically specific cultural institutions?
The day began with a studio visit with photographer and musician Bianka Brunson and visual artist Lorna Williams. Both women’s works express interest in collecting and creating curated space, whether it be made up of physical objects, sounds, or experiences. Brunson, whose music and photography are in constant interplay, creates abstract works that bridge natural elements with human-made sounds/structures through both mediums. Brunson makes her way throughout the Philadelphia music scene, playing DJ sets and riffing off of the energy of the crowds. Brunson describes her musical practice as the soundtrack to her work with photos, and also to the experiences she creates with her audiences. These improvisational performances create a curated sonic and physical space that evokes emotion and engages with the senses. Williams presented a large scale mixed-media sculptural piece entitled birth-right, currently on view at the Maryland Institute College of Art where she is completing her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Williams explained that the piece is extremely personal and contains items she has collected since she was a child. Visible in the sculpture are small toys, sticks, beads, and dreadlocks that she had grown for most of her life. Williams describes birth-right as representative of her personal and familial history which grounds and inspires her. She is currently interested in biology, the human body, and its spiritual and physical connection to the natural world. Williams described birth-right as a “rebuilding of self,” and an expression of dance, movement and music that define her as a native of New Orleans.
Brunson and Williams’ artistic interest in purposefully constructed space is mirrored in the character of their shared quarters. The two women live and work in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood in a sunny loft filled with plants, books and collected objects. A large alter stands erect in the corner of the main room and a number of guitars hang from the walls as usable art. Brunson and Williams explain that their loft serves as a home, a community hub, and an artistic workplace. Just last week they hosted the wedding of two artist friends, transforming Brunson’s photography studio into an intimate space for ceremony. Together, these objects, the people who occupy the loft from time to time, and the conversations that take place in the apartment create an unconventional curated space rooted in communal politics and human connection.
Immediately following the studio visit with Brunson and Williams, the Curatorial Fellows and staff traveled to the Temple University campus to visit the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. The Blockson Collection is housed in a large room filled with glass cases of rare books, sculptures, paintings and memorabilia that tell a history of Philadelphia, Afro-America and a wider African past. The group had the opportunity to meet with the collection’s Curator, Dr. Diane D. Turner; Librarian, Aslaku Berhanu; and Curator Emeritus, renowned historian and bibliophile, Mr. Charles L. Blockson. Blockson began his collection as a young child in response to a teacher who told him that African Americans have made no contributions to American history. The collection, now boasting over 500,000 items, is most noted for rare books including Corippi Africani Grammatici (1581), The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831) and David Walker’s Appeal (1829).
Spending time with the materials and speaking with the staff raised questions about the importance of collecting as a means for documenting histories of marginalized groups. Blockson’s collection holds monumental weight as one of the primary depositories for historical items related to Black experience in the United States and abroad. Similar to Lorna Williams’ birth-right, and the Kensington loft, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection uses objects to tell a specific story that is at once personal, ancestral and political. However, Williams’ and Brunson’s art and loft are read as subjective, with a particular point of view that represents only the women and their ideals. The Blockson Collection, due to its scale, reputation, and identification with Temple University, is seen as an objective survey of Afro-America through artifacts and art objects. It is not that the Blockson Collection seeks to present itself as the objective representation of Black art and experience. Rather, legacies of homogenization of Black identity dictate that there is only one version of Black history. To what extent does what one chooses to collect at a culturally specific institution ultimately aid in the construction of a particular historical narrative? How can curatorial practice work to undo these homogenizing effects of white supremacy?
This issue of curatorial practice as a tool for disrupting a dominant narrative was further complicated during the group’s visit to an unconventional art space, Eastern State Penitentiary. According to the institution’s promotional materials, Eastern State is described as, “The world’s first true penitentiary, a prison designed to inspire patience — or true regret — in the hearts of criminals.” Eastern State was active for 142 years, but today the prison is a tourist attraction complete with eerie audio tours and a gift shop. Visitors roamed the many tunnels of decrepit cells that once held maximum security prisoners, and school children toured the site as if they were visiting an amusement park or haunted house. Eastern State introduced technology into the space in a very prominent way. One of Eastern State’s primary curatorial devices is a guided audio tour of the facility. As one enters different cellblocks, posters instruct visitors to key in corresponding numbers. A narrator then guides the participant through the cellblock. The audio tour is becoming an increasingly popular educational tool as museums of all kinds experiment with technology. While the audio tour was certainly informative, it created a greater sense of distance between the viewer and the exhibition. It was easy to get distracted by the audio and realize that you were no longer looking closely at the space. On the other hand, at times, the audio became nothing but background sound. Technology in the museum space holds educational potential, but the extra layer of mediation manipulates the experience and can interrupt the viewer’s interaction with the space.
Eastern State has a site-specific installation art program, where the penitentiary invites artists to install works within the prison walls. One of the featured installations is a video work entitled Beware the Lily Law by artist Michelle Handelman. Handleman’s installation was undoubtedly a radical intervention into the space. She developed and projected a series of three monologues based on the experiences of gay and transgendered prison inmates on the wall of one of the prison’s cells. The work brought forth the intersection of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and imprisonment, offering an entirely new lens through which to engage with Eastern State. Handleman’s video was one of the more successful works, and its life in the cell offered an example of how curatorial practice can be used to disrupt a dominant narrative. How would this kind of curatorial practice of exhibiting work that is directly critical of the institution itself, be received at an ethnically specific cultural institution?
Later that day, the group was greeted by Richard Watson, Curator of Exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP). AAMP is in the heart of Philadelphia’s downtown district, and serves mainly as a historical and cultural museum. Watson led a guided tour of the museum’s current exhibitions and discussed AAMP’s new direction. He explained that the use of technology is at the core of AAMP’s current exhibitions model as a way to capture the attention of young people in a digital world. On the two main floors of the museum, a permanent exhibition on view since June 2009 entitled, Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776 – 1876 fills the gallery space with 10 life-sized talking figures that tell the early history of African Americans in the city. Each historical figure is personified in an oversize digital screen and tells his or her life story as a pioneer in Philadelphia. The upstairs galleries house more traditional historical exhibitions, and have a lot in common in terms of subject matter with the works at the Charles L. Blockson Collection. While AAMP and the Blockson Collection prescribe to a similar historical narrative, the institutions’ curatorial philosophies could not be more divergent. Additionally, while AAMP and Eastern State both rely heavily on technology in their respective spaces, the ways in which technology is utilized is a point of sharp contrast. At AAMP, technology is not a means by which to view the exhibition as is the case at Eastern State Penitentiary. Rather, the technology itself is being exhibited in the space. Information is seamlessly integrated through audio and video and relays historical information without text or primary documents. The inclusion of technology in the exhibition space raises questions of how technology can be used not only to present information, but also as a way to create a site for critical engagement and the production of new knowledge.
The Curatorial Intensive illuminated new perspectives on collecting, the use of technology and the political potential of curatorial interventions in dominant spaces. These common threads tied the day’s itinerary together, connecting institutions and individuals that at first glance may seem entirely unrelated. In addition to the studio visit with Bianka Brunson and Lorna Williams, The Charles L. Blockson Collection, Eastern State Penitentiary and the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Curatorial Intensive included visits to the Fabric Workshop and Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, and an artist run gallery and collective, VoxPopuli. While lively and innovative, the Philadelphia contemporary art scene read as entirely separate from African American historical and cultural spaces. The absence of an institution like MoCADA that stands at the crossroads of historical education and contemporary expression constructed an artistic landscape quite different from Brooklyn and New York City. Both sectors are doing invaluable work in their respective fields, and are providing Philadelphians and visitors with incredible access to art and culture, ultimately raising questions of where and how these sectors intersect.
By Isissa Komada-John