Nigerian artist Olanrewaju "Lanre" Tejuoso works almost exclusively with what a museum curator would call "found objects," and the rest of the world would term "trash." So when he arrived in North Philadelphia for a residency over the summer and began hunting for art supplies, he had to acclimate to a new landscape of litter. The biggest mystery: Why had someone left a mug with a candle in it on a sidewalk? A bottle? A teddy bear?
He learned they were sidewalk memorials. He found them both foreign and moving.
"People create a space with personal objects in respect of their loved ones," said Tejuoso, 43, a sculptor and conceptual artist. In his hometown of Abeokuta, Nigeria, memorial practices were different, but there was the common experience of loss and memory. "As an artist, I'm between these two traditions, so I wanted to see what I can do to string them together."
The result is Material Memory, a massive and ambitious installation in a partially renovated warehouse in North Philadelphia. It's just across the street from the Village of Arts and Humanities, which brought in Tejuoso as part of its SPACES artist residency program. The nonprofit paired him with six neighborhood residents who worked as collaborators and assistants to fill the space, about 12,000 square feet, with intricately knotted fabric in cascading strips, long gnarled rolls, fluffy pom-poms, and ragged bundles all piled on the floor or strung from the walls or ceiling.
It took six months and the help of dozens of community members to accumulate the thousands of knots and nearly two dozen artworks.
"Many people say this is the first time they've seen a show of this magnitude in North Philadelphia," Tejuoso said. Then he shrugged. He's not from here, so he couldn't say for sure.
It's at least the largest exhibition by the Village, which received discounted and donated space from the owner of the Acme Wire Products building. (The warehouse had been vacant for years. Now that it's being renovated, the nonprofit hopes this could be the start of a relationship that might include exhibition and studio space for low-income neighborhood artists.)
The work is mostly abstract – taking the idea of roadside memorials and translating it from the specific to the global. It also draws on Nigerian traditions of knotting and folding fabric: into an osuka, a doughnut of fabric used as a support when carrying a heavy load on one's head, or an okuntobi, a knotted band of fabric used to carry money or other belongings.
Rows of osukalike halos line one wall. Another holds a monumental waterfall of folded paper, junk-food wrappers, and knotted fabrics. A snowdrift of shredded paper occupies one corner. Strings of origami made from National Geographic magazines festoon a pair of chairs, entirely obscuring them. And in one room, crates of fabric scraps, loose or knotted into pocket-size bundles, are offered up for visitors to take home, like fetishes or power objects freighted with meaning.
As an environmental artist, Tejuoso works with salvaged materials only: he gathered scrap fabrics from local cutting houses and designers like Anthropologie and Plume & Thread. He also found supplies at the Revolution Recovery recycling center – for instance, metal chair frames that are wadded into striking modernist sculptures.
There are also photos taken by artists who walked through the neighborhood, knotting strands of fabric, taking Polaroids and telling stories at sites that were meaningful to them and that had contained memorials. One set of images depicts artist Will Reid standing down the street from where his brother, Rob, was killed, and in the Wissahickon Valley, where he goes to find a measure of peace.
Other stories of loss and memory are compiled into poems or knotted into the work in invisible ways.
"This project wasn't about asking everyone to show their scars and talk about how hard it was," said Lillian Dunn, who coordinates the SPACES residency program. "It was an act of collective creation."
But as the work progressed, those stories crept in.
Margaret Waters, 23, one of the neighborhood artists who contributed to the project, said she'd also contributed to two or three roadside memorials. This process was emotional, too, but in a different way.
"I got people that's fallen. Everyone's got people that's fallen, so it was like this is something I'm doing for all of them," she said.
There's room for all of these ideas here, said Tejuoso, who works democratically.
"It's not a one-man show," he said.
He let the work take fresh turns as community members contributed time and labor at events at art galleries, community centers, schools, and an addiction-recovery support program. He even included an artwork by Ruben Antonio Guitierrez, a participant in the New Pathways recovery program who got so inspired by the process that he made his own found-object sculpture, called Junk Manic Robots, assembled from compact discs, hubcaps, and knotted fabric for hair.
As for Tejuoso, his memories and losses are contained here, too.
He points to a pile of fabric bundles tied up in a way that people in Nigeria often use to carry their possessions. To Tejuoso, they represent the baggage of undocumented migrants and refugees leaving Africa for Europe – risking their lives in the process. In a way, it's a memorial to those who made the journey, and to the many others who didn't survive it.
"I also was one who aspired to come to the Western world. Now I found myself in the Western world, miraculously or by chance. And I think, is it worth dying for?"