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.
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.
At its worst, public art can be imagery that heightens already existing social hierarchies and inequalities, and at its best–can be a portal into a future of healing and transformation.
I am a queer Asian American immigrant woman and non-citizen to this country. I grew up with a speech impediment so severe it caused me to fear my own voice. When my speaking voice failed, I fashioned myself a new one on the blank page.
I became a muralist because public art became the closest thing to a voice after a lifetime of feeling silenced. When I started painting murals, I was both exhilarated to make work on such a large level and immobilized by a fear of taking up public space. Where did this fear come from? For my childhood, every time I stuttered, my classmates finished my sentences for me. As I grew up, I experienced gender and racially-exoticizing harassment just walking down the street. As a woman of color working in film and public art, the icons I have to look up to are few and far between. As a migrant, I grew up watching my mother get denied at the U.S. border, homeland security giving her trouble every time she renewed her visa, up until we finally obtained our green cards after nine years. In all this, the ability to survive as an artist, and live here legally, comes at so high of a cost that the idea of doing illegal art, or physically taking up public space, can feel life-endangering.