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  • Frances Schwabenland

"Staying Power" in Philadelphia

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

Since my last post was all about transforming the home I grew up in, I thought it was only fitting for me to explore the outdoor art exhibition in the Fairhill-Hartranft neighborhood of Philadelphia entitled, Staying Power. Sculptures, photography, storefront activations and performances all speak to amplify and invest in the staying power of the residents of this area through both calm and challenging times. Monument Lab in coordination with The Village of Arts and Humanities sought to acknowledge and celebrate community residents as curators, thought leaders and makers. They imagined, Staying Power as an "exhibition designed to explore the legacies and creative practices that connect or disconnect people from place."

I would like to take you along with me as I walked through the weaving of art and story, culture and dignity.

When I entered this vibrant space along Germantown Ave. I first saw Deborah Willis's large free standing, monumental portraits of women entrepreneurs in North Philadelphia: fashion designer Lucretia Russel, baker Tamyra Tucker, artist Aisha Chamblis and activist and fiber artist Ms. Nandi Muhammed. Ms. Willis was awarded the MacArthur Genius award for this work and is a leading scholar and curator of Black photography.

The space originally was barren of nature and filled with ashes from burned down houses until 50 years ago when Arthur Hall, the famous teacher of West African dance and music, sought out the Chinese Artist Lily Yeh and a local mason Jo Jo Williams to work their magic of transformation. The children told them they wanted to see trees so Yeh drew a circle and it became the Tree of Life sculpture and the very first trees in the area. I was happy to now see all the live branches almost reaching out to touch the sculpture.

Color, color everywhere...I walked right up to the first mural Lily Yeh created called, Ife Ife Guardian which means The House of Love or The House of Creating. The mythical owl represents wisdom and protection passed down between generations and the birds and fish symbolize the many forms of life and dreams that thrive here.

I crossed the street captivated by three exhibits. Ebony Patterson created a series of imaginative and multilayered works adorning the walls of buildings throughout the park. Each of the four scenes includes headless monumental figures embedded in dreamlike and embellished gardens with the poetic phrases:

"She is the Memory."

"She is the Nourishment."

"She is the Soil."

"She is the Mourning."

Her narratives weave together love and loss...beautifully conveying the power and contributions of women but also acknowledging all the terrible abuse that still takes place.

The second instillation that I walked up to was a circle of huge black and white portraits of women. Under each were quotes that when I read them with my mind, I felt them strongly in my heart. For this project, Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist collaborated with 5 women - Tamika Bell, Paulette Carrington, Starr Granger, Ivy Lenore Johnson and Yvonne Newkirk whose lives were or continue to be ensnared by long term and life sentencing in prison. 200 lights hang above the portraits symbolizing the women presently on Death Row in our country. Bowles and Strandquist drew inspiration from the work they do as co-directors of the People's Paper Co-Op which works with women in reentry who fight to free and support incarcerated mothers and caregivers. Their piece addressed who is missing and who does NOT have staying power in the community. They asked these women 2 questions:

"What flowers would you like to see upon your release?"

"What would this day look like for you?".

The flowers became a colorful halo over each portrait and the quotes in their simplicity and sheer exuberance were so powerful. "I hadn't been outside after 9 pm for years. When I finally did, all I could see was FREEDOM in the sky and the stars."

In this same space is the Grandmother Clock...Black Quantum Futurism (Camae Ayewa and Rasheedah Phillips) created a sculptural piece that brings together art, ritual, text and sound. People are asked to record both their hopes and dreams as well as their past experiences that will be combined with song snippets and neighborhood sounds that will play from Sound Bath speakers for residents to further claim the space and time.

After this, I entered Angels Alley. Lily Yeh painted beautiful Ethiopian angels and in between were the names of those from the area who were killed in Vietnam. There were painted angel sticks and colorful angel mosaics. These images were inspired by artwork from Ethiopian magic scrolls which people wore as talismans for safekeeping. The angels hold swords. They are strong and capable of self-defense. They have small mirror chips for eyes. These lyphsthe angels are watching over everyone and see both the good and bad that people do. The mirrors were used to catch the light and reflect it back into the alley showing this as a place cared for and watched over. Who wouldn't feel good surrounded by angels?!

Yeh worked with James "Big Man" Maxton who would be in the park each day teaching children how to play chess. Philadelphia leaders asked him once to come in to tell them what they could do for the people in the area and his response was, "You come to me." So they did and sat on his stoop because that's what we do with neighbors here in Philadelphia. After he died, the stoop was removed from his home and placed next to a memorial piece done by the children in the area.

Finally, I saw the storefront display designed by Sadie Barnette. It was a living love letter to the neighborhood. She sees the living room as a space of personal significance, intimate gathering and political possibility. The living room has witnessed dance parties, sermons, the best debaters and orators, and held space for hospice, loss, grief, flowers and meals. She created a display built around a sparkled couch, Afro pick wallpaper, and a framed photograph of her Aunt Vivian. She wanted to capture all the magical and mundane moments that unfold right in the living room of families across decades.

Talk about the staying power here in Philadelphia... cobblestoned Germantown Avenue has been the setting for Revolutionary War battles and the birthplace of the anti-slavery movement in America. There has been a legacy of fighting for democracy while fighting against injustice. There has been a collective creative vision elevating stories of resistance, dignity and hope through artists, orators, visionaries. Right now at 2544 Germantown Avenue, the legacy continues with art that is to be seen, touched and entered into. Art that is to be appreciated, reflected upon and hopefully move the viewer. I know it did me! It can be seen quietly or if you go to the EventBrite, free tickets are being given for a tour with a guide.

My special thanks to Qiaira Riley and Reggie Johnson for "Living Namaste"! Thank you so much for sharing your time and knowledge with me. Your energy and enthusiasm for the project was contagious and the art was truly inspiring! All the best!

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