Something monumental is happening throughout Philadelphia, the birthplace of democracy.
“We are a city of firsts,” said City Representative Sheila Hess, “and this is another first, one of the most ambitious projects ever.”
It is so noteworthy that Mayor Jim Kenney officially declared the launch of Monument Lab, on Saturday, September 16 to be Mural Arts Monument Lab Day. This nine-week innovative program pushes the boundaries of self-expression and invites artists to use sound, light, and imagery to create new monuments that represent Philadelphia’s rich, diverse history: 20 local and international artists, 10 locations across the city, and 1 central question: What makes an “appropriate” monument for Philadelphia in the 21st Century?
“There is something revolutionary about this work because it is about representing people who felt unrepresented,” points out Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts. She said that the work causes us to ask questions and engage in dialogue.
“All too often, in the telling of our history things get left out, so let’s change that together, “said Golden, ” and as the national conversation grows, this project could not be more timely and significant.”
The labs, stationed at each of the public art sites, serve as a catalyst for conversation, where you can upload your own designs to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the research hub.
We the People
Inside of City Hall stands two replicas of the Citizen’s pedestal, each lettered in bronze “ME.” “As you ascend, you leave others to represent yourself on the pedestal,” Chin noted.
Chin designed massive ramps leading up to the plinth so that it is accessible to everyone. “It is my commitment in granite, stone, and bronze for every individual to be able to reach the top and complete the work,” he said.
Philadelphian Bernadette Murphy, who came because her friends posted pictures of themselves on Facebook posed on the ME pedestal, felt empowered as she struck a champion’s pose while passersby looked up at her. “I felt like I was being honored for no reason at all.”
Golden looked down in awe from the pedestal. “To hear Mel explain this piece is stirring because he talks about how often we walk alone in life,” she said, “ and when we come down from this monument and meet the other Me, we’re We instead of Me, We the people. Anything that can do this in today’s frayed world deserves a round of applause.”
Challenging the status quo
Michelle Angela Ortiz, a first-generation immigrant, believes that Monument Lab is about challenging the idea of whom we respect and admire, and it creates a safe space for dialogue about some of the most profound issues.
Ortiz brings stories of immigrants and their families into the public realm, by honoring two mothers who were recently released after being unjustly detained at the Berks Detention Center for nearly two years, nearby Philadelphia. Her animated projections on the gates of City Hall present stories of their journey, resilience, and fight for freedom.
What is an appropriate monument?
The Artist Hank Willis Thomas didn’t expect so much controversy over the placement of an 8-foot Afro Pick sculpture, with its tines driven into the ground and handle cresting the top with a black clenched fist, just feet away from the statue of former Mayor Frank Rizzo.
His intention was to create a symbol reflecting African American history and culture, he added, “to highlight ideas related to community, strength, perseverance, comradeship, and resistance to oppression.
“Part of my struggle is not to be reactionary; it’s far more important to be visionary,” explained Thomas. He views himself as “documenting our existence here for years and generations to come.”
“At some point, we need to reconsider how we make public space, who and what we are, and how we want to present ourselves to the world.”
By Lynda Dell