In 2017, I curated the We The People series for Mural Arts Philadelphia, a series of six murals by some of my favorite artists. I probably should have been writing about We The People on here regularly since July, but here’s a very belated update from Philly.
Before we get into We the People, a bit of context. The last year has seen the floodgates open in the USA, with national conversations on crises that have been festering under-reported for years, like sexual harassment and racism. The arts community has added their voices to the mix through projects like the Amplifier Foundation, Not Surprised, and the Whitney’s An Incomplete History of Protest.
This moment demands urgent public art. And muralists have responded. In at least one case, an artist was censored after-the-fact and had to make things work outside of an institutional context. But some mural festivals have embraced a spirit of activism, most notably WALL\THERAPY in Rochester, NY and Living Walls, The City Speaks in Atlanta, GA.
It’s in a similar spirit to all of those projects that we tried a little experiment in Philadelphia with We The People. When Mural Arts invited me to curate a series of walls for them, I figured it had to be of the moment, and with artists that they weren’t already doing a lot of work with. So we invited Molly Crabapple, Chris “Daze” Ellis, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Dennis McNett, NTEL, and Jess X. Snow to create work celebrating the best of the American spirit right now, while also reflecting current national concerns. Plus, it was a continuation of Mural Arts’ years-long effort to work with more street artists. There was little community engagement beyond what I and the project manager did while hunting for walls, but I think that by being careful about sites, artists, and content, we brought to life some strong, timely, and site-responsive work.
McNett and Fazlalizadeh installed temporary works outside of The University of the Arts, right on one of the busiest streets in the city. McNett’s mural celebrating the country’s natural beauty came shortly before Trump slashed the size of national parks in Utah. Fazlalizadeh’s Questioning Whiteness was installed almost immediately following the white-supremacist rallies (and violence) in Charlottesville.
Molly Crabapple’s No Borders mural (one of StreetsDept’s favorite moments of Philly public art this year) is a subtle celebration of immigration, full of monarch butterflies.
Daze’s mural on the Universal Institute Charter School arrived just in time to surprise for students returning from summer break with some color and fun, all celebrating the importance of education.
And while most of the murals came together in a more or less straightforward manner, Snow’s and NTEL’s were exercises in endurance.
Snow took on a huge wall over a long weekend, working until 3am on at least one night, for A Daughter Migrates Towards the Mother Earth. Snow said, “This is for all the migrants and migrating creatures of the Earth who cross borders if only to reunite with those they love.”
And then NTEL took over an entire building with a wrap-around mural on Broad Street, a statement on food and environmental justice. Turning an empty grey building into a colorful collage, NATIV NTELIGENCE is made up of native Pennsylvania plants. I don’t know who else I could possibly have asked to paint this building. Only NTEL.
And that was the experiment: What if we gave a few great artists a few bucks to do something quick and timely? My hope is that each of these murals is a test, to show Mural Arts who they might hire for more extensive projects in the future. On that point, I guess we won’t know whether it’s a success or not for a few years. But for now, I think Philly’s walls are a bit more interesting.
Photos by Steve Weinik and Chris “Daze” Ellis