Philly’s Freedom: Artists Speak Out opened this past weekend in downtown Philadelphia as the first exhibition to re-open the National Liberty Museum in historic Old City. Imagine my excitement to be in the company of 50+ Philly-area artists sharing such relevant, socially-engaging and moving artwork. I attended the artist-only preview event last Tuesday to see works displayed in two galleries within the museum: a lower-level gallery with awe-striking works to equally match the upstairs gallery, known as the Live Like a Hero gallery.
Artist Chelsey Luster, a fellow Temple University alumna, has one of her two paintings exhibited adjacent to my own Upcycled Reimagined Gemstone Objects (see gallery install photo.) Invasion, oil on panel, 3′ x 6′, depicts a woman reclining in a claw-foot tub, only her extended fingers and portion of her face exposed, but for the repetitious pattern of yellow painted stripes, almost hiding her. Luster utilizes bathroom scenes in her work to explore queer black womanhood with regards to lack of privacy, invasion of the black queer body and feelings of isolation.
Defend Black Girls is Luster’s call to empowerment of the black female. She chose to use oil on panel, a quintessentially historic-laden format for painting that hearkens back to medieval and early Renaissance art. In Luster’s piece, the female subject is staring straight at the viewer, her head surrounded by the early medieval style of the flat, behind-the-head halo. Her arms are folded tightly across her torso as she appears adamant, almost commanding to her audience to wake up and heed her call for justice.
Luster was formally trained as a painter at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Based on my own experiences studying art and music history at Temple U. – Luster most likely was immersed at some point in the study of early medieval, Byzantine or Renaissance art as part of the array of studies that Tyler art students are required to take as university curriculum.
Whether it is subliminal or deliberately part of Luster’s masterful plan here, she ennobles this woman in the same artistic fashion as medieval artists ennobled images of female saints. A prime example of this is the mosaic pieces of female saints at Santa Prassede in Rome, sporting the same style of flat, behind-the-head round halo Luster employs in her portrait of black womanhood. The women portrayed in the Santa Prassede mosaics are looking out at their audience with a similar eye-engaging, straightforward glance as Luster’s painting of a contemporary female living in the twenty-first century Americas.
Another unique approach to the “flattened halo” mystique found in historical stained glass art can be seen in Justin Tyner’s All I Think About is You, one of two pieces of Tyner’s work in the exhibit. The silhouette of the model in this piece is delicately created yet one cannot assume Tyner is representing a female here, nor objectifying her. The “bejeweled” halo itself is created so meticulously and even more so a challenge Tyner gives himself by using only found/discarded pieces of historic glass from churches and/or glass shards found on the city streets. Yet, he painstakingly cuts them apart and redraws a new reality of his subjects using repurposed glass shards and stark black lines of lead to delineate his carefully-crafted objects.
Utilizing upcycled sterling and fibrous material reclaimed from soup bowls, I created both of my Upcycled Reimagined Gemstone Object No. 1 and No. 2 (pictured.) In looking at the social issues that pervade my artistic practice – I create one-of-a-kind objects that prevent waste materials from entering landfills and trash receptacles to help preserve the natural beauty of our city’s notorious parks, historic landmarks like Old City, Boathouse Row, the Delaware River and more. My items are hand-sawed, pierced, scored into geometric forms, delicately sewn with thread and connected by recycled sterling elements to create a lasting object. With these new objects designed and cut by hand, I hope to transform them into useful objects and thereby prevent their disposal. The 2-D elements are created digitally in Adobe Illustrator software then printed in color onto archival paper.
Philly’s Freedom curated exhibition runs from October 16th, 2020 through February 13th, 2021 in two galleries within the historic National Liberty Museum, located at 321 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Many of the works on exhibit in Philly’s Freedom are available for purchase through the museum. Timed tickets must be purchased either online at the museum’s online portal or upon arrival at the front desk. New hours are Thursday through Saturday, 10 am to 7pm, with the 10-11 am hour reserved for seniors and immuno-compromised individuals due to new protocols in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Face coverings are required.
Images used are courtesy of the artists and the National Liberty Museum, except where noted.