They are their own monuments

Rasheedah Phillips (left) and Camae Ayewa (Right), the art duo of Black Quantum Futurism, in Philadelphia, April 27, 2021.
Rasheedah Phillips (left) and Camae Ayewa (Right), the art duo of Black Quantum Futurism, in Philadelphia, April 27, 2021. (Photo: NYTimes)
In a section of North Philadelphia, near an underpass and up a soaring stoop painted sky blue, Ms Nandi’s home is decorated with pictures of civil rights heroes and political icons — Malcolm X, Queen Nefertiti, Lenin. Here, for some 20 years, Denise Muhammad, known by everyone as Ms Nandi, and her husband, Khalid, ran an afternoon penny candy store for the neighborhood’s children out of their front living room, but it did much more than sell Tootsie Rolls.اضافة اعلان

If the children could not count their change, the couple taught them. If they could not read a quotation from Marcus Garvey on the wall, they helped them learn to read. “Ask any child in the neighborhood where Ms Nandi’s house is,” she said on a recent afternoon. “They’ll know.”

Ms Nandi is a pillar of the community many residents call Fairhill-Hartranft, and one of the inspirations behind a new exhibition there called “Staying Power.” The show, which opened May 1 across several green spaces, features a series of homegrown monuments by artists to the residents who have helped to lift citizens in these communities, where the life expectancy is low, incarceration levels are high, and gentrification is now displacing people.

Not granite or bronze, these new monuments by Deborah Willis, Sadie Barnette, Ebony G. Patterson, Courtney Bowles and Mark Strandquist, and Black Quantum Futurism, consist of outdoor sculptures and photography, storefront activations and performances. When I visited before the opening, banners were being unfurled, lights strung up, and the parks swept of debris.

“This is a place to understand how residents over many generations sustained staying power despite systemic forces undermining them,” says Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, a Philadelphia-based public art and research studio dedicated to examining how history is told in the public landscape.

Monument Lab has conceived and organized the exhibition alongside residents and the Village of Arts and Humanities — an arts nonprofit that runs cultural programs and stewards several parks in the area.

The story of Ms Nandi’s candy store has informed at least three of the installations in “Staying Power.” Barnette has created a fantastical living room in a storefront along Germantown Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial corridor. It is an homage to “the institution of family living rooms,” as a place of solace and healing during times of crisis, Barnette said. Patterson has created a series of banners featuring headless women against richly patterned backgrounds, honoring those who nurtured community but who nonetheless suffered violence and trauma.

Willis, who grew up some 25 blocks from Fairhill-Hartranft, photographed female entrepreneurs and their homes, including a baker, Tamyra Tucker; an event organizer, Aisha Chambliss — and Ms Nandi.

When artists Bowles and Strandquist began considering the idea of staying power, they took a different approach, asking, “who is missing?” The pair collaborated with five women — four of them formerly incarcerated — to create a sculpture that celebrates their ongoing crusade to end life sentences in Pennsylvania. The women’s images appear in commanding portraits, displayed around a crown-like structure, while 200 lights hang above them — a memorial to the women still serving life sentences, 54 of whom are from Philadelphia.

If Bowles and Strandquist’s work represents dozens of Philadelphia women, Black Quantum Futurism, the Afro-futurist collective created by social practice artists Rasheedah Phillips and Camae Ayewa, is hoping their monument will capture voices from the neighborhood and beyond. Taking the form of a 7-foot (2.1 meters) grandmother clock, the towering form houses an oral history booth where residents can record their stories and share their desires for the future. It is, in effect, a monument that listens.

“Staying Power” is giving a platform to local voices in other ways: It includes a whole gamut of programs, performances and research initiatives — including one led by Ms Nandi, who as a paid curatorial fellow will be interviewing families about their experiences of home-schooling children during the pandemic.

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