On a whim on January 24, 2019, I decided to attend an opening art show. As it was advertised on Facebook- I would be seeing a show that involves South African photographer Zanele Muholi. In 2019, if one uses the internet- and they have interest in Black art- more than likely they are familiar with Muholi’s work, or at least the terrorism they endured and survived in 2012- as someone stole five years worth of their work on Black lesbian life in South Africa. I attended this event expecting to see work that fell into the politics and aesthetics that Muholi is known for. Instead, I left the event with a deeper understanding of how these same politics and aesthetics that Muholi captures in South Africa create the dynamic entity that is the city of Philadelphia.
The Women’s Mobile Museum is a group of new photographers. From what I understand, the group formed as a selected bunch that participated in an apprenticeship formed by Muholi as part of their residency at Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. The ten femme/women that make up the group are from Philadelphia, and they were led by Muholi, London based curator Renee Musai and South African photographer Lindeka Qampi. They embarked on this journey with also the support of project adviser Dr. Kathleen Walls- a clinical and systems change psychologist. The infrastructure created by the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center for this program was spearheaded by Lori Waselchuk. The exhibit showed throughout Philadelphia- at the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts, the Dixon House in Point Breeze, and during a community festival in Juanita Park.
afaq, Davelle Barnes, Andrea Walls, Shasta Bady, Irish Maldonado, Danielle Morris, Shana- Adina Roberts, Carrie- Anne Shimborski, Tash Billington, Muffy Ashley Torres carried alongside the work of Lindeka Qampi and Zanele Muholi reaffirmed what I know, yet stretched what I thought I was already used to seeing. The site of their work as a collection in a gentrified area of North Philadelphia reminded me that art must speak truth to power by any means possible. The power of their work gathered in this point and time in our country situates counter-narratives that should be amplified when possible. Their work has also been organized with artist statements in the Women’s Mobile Museum magazine which can be found at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center.
All of the work inspired me, but two artists in particular pushed me into a space where I was able to meditate on my experiences in Philadelphia as I worked through their pieces at the show. Muffy Ashley Torres showed us the physical pain of displacement. She reminded us that gentrification is not abstract, nor is it a buzzword. Her photography captured the disgustingly common process of eviction, resell and demolition/rehab families witness happen to what they considered their foundation. Torres’ body within the shot displaced our gaze from the deconstruction of property and refocused our eyes toward analyzing what the destruction has done to her body. Our eyes followed Torres as through her photography, we witnessed how she endured and coped with these societal shifts with health limitations.
Tash Billington’s photography shook me to my core because of the simple truth it revealed. Billington made Philadelphia appear as earnest as it is through her photography. She took phenomenal rich portraits of the diversity of Philadelphia natives and their everyday. To an outsider, there is no way they would have understood cues, facial smirks, jewelry, clothing, stance, accessories that alluded to the neighborhood one could guess each individual represented. Arab oils as its known in Philly are the focal point of one of her pieces of the exhibit. I watched onlookers laugh awkwardly at the piece as they read the labels, or just give the work a quick glance. For me, the oils spoke to a deeper struggle that I know Philadelphia natives have endured through my work in reintegration of folks that have endured mass incarceration. I came to learn about those oils as a means to introduce folks back into the economy that are shut out due to charges on their records. The economic system is ingenious, heavily relies on transnational relationships that go beyond race and class in Philadelphia, as the oils sold in bulk are sold by the SWANA community and deals are made with Black folks within the Islamic faith in Arabic. This relationship is so specific to Philadelphia, and gets swept up in the fodder of cheesesteaks and Eagles when folks move to the area. I love Tash’s message of welcoming those who are ready to learn and help Philadelphia grow because it is a city that has been alot and is going through alot. For every person from NYC that is making their way to Philly because its affordable, at least three families are trying to see if they can make their way into Delaware County or the outskirts of the city. Tash captures how Philadelphia see themselves presently. What she leaves us with is questions toward how everyone can enhance what has been struggled for.
I can say that the Women’s Mobile Museum is indeed a revolutionary model that can and should be embraced throughout the country if not the world. Making art accessible in the time of governments cutting arts funding requires a special approach. I believe the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center figured out a way for everyone to be able to say me – when the question of “who is art for?” is asked.
photos were pulled from the Philadephia Photo Arts Center- additional information about the exhibit can be found here https://www.philaphotoarts.org/event/womens-mobile-museum/