In the chapel at Girard College, an institution that fought in court for decades to uphold its segregated policies, montages of black people healing themselves — across history and the African diaspora — are now playing as part of a sophisticated contemporary art installation.
Back and Song, by filmmakers Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young, celebrates the resilience of ordinary people faced with extraordinary medical discrimination. It arrives at Girard College via a partnership between Thomas Jefferson University and Philadelphia Contemporary, a museum without walls that has made a name for itself with site-specific installations like this one.
On four video screens positioned inside the vast chapel, visitors see images of black people dancing, making music, and performing traditional healing rituals — in Africa, America, the Caribbean, and Brazil. Here, too, are images of black prisoners at rest, finding peace in meditation.
These are images of black people across the African diaspora, all healing themselves, said filmmakers Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young. They’re meant to counter a long history of alienation from Western, predominantly white, medicine — one study of med students in 2016 showed that half believed black people feel less pain than white people — and the history of mistrust that goes along with that.
“We’re not politicians, educators, or activists,” Young said. “We try to engage in feeling.”
Their images should feel familiar to ordinary people in the community, he said, since they’re “what we use to share with each other in our journey for health.”
"These are things we show our children, commiserate as a community around, and laugh about and cry about,” Young said.
Scenes of Africans and Afro-Brazilian dancers are juxtaposed against scenes of black American churchgoers gathered in praise. Some ancient images conjure modern ones: images of Africans dancing in a circle in a slow, steady, marchlike beat call to mind the way ushers in black churches march around sections of pews, or black sorority and fraternity step shows.
Young, who’s based in Baltimore, is an Oscar-nominated cinematographer for Arrival. He has also worked as a director of photography for Ava DuVernay and Ron Howard. Moorhead is cofounder of TNEG Film Studios, also in Baltimore, and has created more than 40 multidisciplinary art works.
We spoke with them when they were in town for the exhibit’s debut, and with Nato Thompson, artistic director for Philadelphia Contemporary. Back and Song runs weekends through Oct. 27.
Thompson said Thomas Jefferson University’s director of humanities, Megan Voeller, reached out to him about collaborating on a public art project that melded art and medicine. He approached Young, and Young brought in Moorhead. The two decided to explore the topic of medicine and race with both archival footage and new images of black traditional healing methods.
The artists were well versed in the history of how Western medicine has ignored, misdiagnosed, and abused black patients, including well-documented cases like the Tuskegee experiment. It was Young who told Philadelphia Contemporary about that 2016 study of medical students.
They were familiar with books like Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, written by Harriet A. Washington, and Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of American Gynecology, by Deirdre Cooper Owens.
They deliberately chose not to hammer away at racist inequities and instead to celebrate black resilience. “We already know what American medical institutions have done to our bodies,” Young said. ”We turned our back on that and focused on the nonstop hard work our community has engaged with to address some of these assaults on our health.
“It’s reminding ourselves of what we have access to and the things we’ve done without permission from our oppressors in order to resist.”
“There’s the notion that this country was built on the backs of black people,” Moorhead said, and that’s the “back” the exhibition’s title refers to.
“One of the particular challenges we have as image makers, we always feel like we wear the trauma on our face,” Young added. “But I always challenge filmmakers, specifically directors, to think about the back as a place where we wear a lot of that historical trauma.”
As for “song,” Moorhead said, “We were talking about “song” being literally song, but also, ‘This is my story, this is my song.’ … It’s our voice. It’s a reference to this idea of black people’s song and narrative.”
The exhibition includes a montage of dance, from tap dancers in tuxedos to women in white dresses dancing the ceremonial Afro-Brazilian Candomblés.
Dance is here as part of African healing rituals, and it’s here as a couple wearing crisp, professional outfits dancing the Lindy Hop. We see young men dancing hip-hop in casual street clothes, and both Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk dancing and moving onstage.
“For us, part of the whole marketing scheme of racism and patriarchy is to force us to deny [the value of ] those things we have intense mastery over,” Moorhead said. The exhibition’s celebration of black dance is meant to confront that.
Philadelphia Contemporary describes Back and Song as “a meditative four-channel film and art installation," which means images are being projected onto four different screens at the same time. Visitors are expected to meander around the chapel to take it all in.
Two screens at the front of the chapel face the pews and show mostly archival footage. One audience member at the opening last Friday interpreted the left side as being mostly African traditions and the right side as African American healing. But images from both the United States and Africa turn up on both screens.
In the chapel’s central aisle, there’s an additional two-sided screen, with the third and fourth “channels” projected on either side. These show a succession of portraits of contemporary healers: doulas, midwives, art therapists, and more. Two are from Philadelphia: Betty Leacraft, a fiber artist who does art therapy, and Denise M. Brown, executive director of the Leeway Foundation, which supports women and trans artists. All four channels repeat in 20-minute loops.
If you sit where you can see the two front screens at once, there is a beautiful confluence at one point where the left screen shows an African woman’s hands washing medicinal herbs in a bowl and the right screen shows an African American woman washing her hands before delivering a baby.
If Back and Song is an art installation, Girard College acts as a picture frame.
“The filmmakers wanted it shown in a place that had significance in the history of African Americans,” Thompson said. They also thought it was important to have it in a neighborhood, rather than in Center City. The college is a Fairmount landmark.
Girard College opened in 1848 as a school for “poor white male orphans” and did not desegregate even after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. The lawyer and NAACP president Cecil B. Moore led protests that eventually helped to change that, including one in 1965 that brought the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to the front lines.
In 1968, a court order finally opened the school’s doors to black students. Today, 85 percent of the school’s 315 students are African American, according to Adam McGrath, a spokesperson. (It’s not a typical “college.” Girard serves students, now both boys and girls, from 1st to 12th grade.)
McGrath said he’d like to bring in more events like this so visitors can “be aware of the history but also be excited about the future.”
The exhibit is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays this month. Students will be given weekday opportunities to see it.
Back and Song
Open to the public noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 27. in the chapel at Girard College, 2101 S. College Ave. Admission is free.
There will also be an artist talk 6 p.m. Oct. 25, at Connelly Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson University, 1020 Locust St., featuring artists Elissa Blount Moorhead and Bradford Young in conversation with historian Deirdre Cooper Owens.