Philadelphia Photo Arts Center asks ‘Who is art for?’ in new mobile museum
The free exhibit features work by 10 female artists of different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.
When South African artist-activist Zanele Muholi accepted her residency program at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center last year, she made one request. Muholi wanted her time in Philadelphia to benefit not only her own career, but also the careers of women of color in the area.
That led in February to the creation of the Women's Mobile Museum, a yearlong residency and apprenticeship program led by Muholi.
Ten female artists selected for the residency completed photography and digital media projects that grapple with how inaccessible certain types of art can be for women of color, both as artists and as consumers of art, by asking the question, "Who is art for?"
"We never really see ourselves in museums," Afaq, a Sudanese American writer, said. "Or if we do see ourselves, it's in ways that seem mocking or exotifying. I never really took photos of myself before because I was told that I was ugly for so many years of my life, so this was really challenging for me."
The artists' projects are on display at various sites around the city for the next six months, in hopes of making art more accessible in areas underserved by traditional institutions. Visitors can see them at the Juniata Park Boys and Girls Club until Oct. 13, Dixon House in Point Breeze from Oct. 27 to Nov. 17, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from Dec. 22 to March 30, and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center from Jan. 10 to March 30. The exhibit is free.
"Our intention was for each artist to leave the residency with a foothold in the Philadelphia art world that they didn't have before," said Lori Waselchuk, exhibitions and programs coordinator at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. "This wasn't a training program. This was about giving these women tools so that they can move into a sustainable career path as an artist."
The 10 projects covered a wide range of topics and subjects. Danielle Morris explored memory and nostalgia through images from her childhood. Andrea Walls documented her response to the separation of children from their parents at the border through photos of clothing in nature. Tash Billington paid homage to Philly natives who have survived obstacles such as racism and violence through a portrait series.
Afaq said conceptualizing her project was difficult at first. It was only through conversations and workshops with Muholi and the other artists that she came up with her idea — a series of self-portraits exploring the identities she embodies and challenging the Western standard of beauty.
Afaq said she ultimately overcame her reluctance to take portraits of herself because she realized that was something she wished she could have seen growing up.
"I'm not used to thinking of myself as beautiful," she said. "So for me, this was radical."
Davelle Barnes drew upon her time in the U.S. Army for her photo series, which critiques the racist, body-shaming rules and regulations she experienced then. She said narratives of women of color in the military are often excluded from mainstream media.
"We got to work with artists at the top of their craft," Barnes said. "I came into this program right after I lost a grant, and I was really bummed about that. But this has been an amazing time."
Women's Mobile Museum
Though Oct. 13, Juniata Park Boys and Girls Club, 1001 East Cayuga St.; Oct. 27-Nov. 17, Dixon House, 1529 S. 22nd St.; Dec. 22-March 30, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 118-128 N. Broad St.; Jan. 10-March 30, Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, 1400 N. American St. #103. Free. 215-232-5678. philaphotoarts.org.