“Down Below: A Reaction to Our Times” uses discarded clothing of Mexican men, women and children to explore immigration and consumerism.
On a sunlit afternoon last week, twinkling mosaics glinted in the curious eyes of a bustling crowd, as several visitors zigzagged through the eclectic indoor and outdoor galleries of the Philadelphia Magic Gardens.
Approaching the first room, tourists were unsure whether they should walk upon a tattered creation, entwined with red, white and green clothing, that was sprawled across the floor.
The folks didn’t take more than a few moments to make a decision, as the piece had seemingly been walked over every day. But, little did they realize, their action was emulating a much larger concept.
In PMG’s latest exhibition, “Down Below: A Reaction to Our Times,” Latin American artist Ornella Ridone uses a concoction of textiles to illustrate North Americans’ perception of Mexicans falling geographically, culturally, economically and morally below the rest of the continent, according to Ridone.
“We really believe in giving artists freedom to do whatever they’d like and give them that platform to be able to express themselves as much as possible in an honest way,” said Emily Smith, executive director of PMG. “One of the things we find very important in the time that we’re living is to try and give voice, or at least show where we stand on these issues that we should be reflecting on how we’re interacting with Mexico and how we’re treating other people in other countries.”
The image of Americans’ mindless dawdling over the depiction of a Mexican flag, weaved together with clothing once worn by the country’s citizens, is one of a few aspects to the installation, which runs through July 8.
Tackling ideas like immigration and consumerism that surface in the artwork, Ridone did not solely draw inspiration from Latin America but also from the streets of South Philly.
“If you’re just plopped into a city and say ‘go absorb it’ — what you get out of that is quite interesting,” Smith said.
Ridone was the inaugural recipient of PMG’s “Julia Zagar Residency for Women Artists,” which aims to feature artists from Mexico and South America. Last spring, the residency allowed Ridone, a novice to the city, to immerse herself in an unknown and unfiltered town where she was particularly thunderstruck by various Philly staples, including history and museums, yet also homelessness and litter. At the trip’s conclusion, she returned to Mexico where she crafted the majority of the artwork.
Always with a sketchbook, Ridone drew scenes of the city from life, including places like the Mütter Museum and South Street police station. She later embroidered these images on red and white clothes which hang in a sequential order on the backroom walls of the gallery.
Aside from Philly landmarks, Ridone was chiefly moved by materialistic and environmental component sites.
“Consumerism is probably what impresses almost anybody coming from a Latin American country,” Ridone wrote in an email. “Multiple packages for any merchandise, thrown away food in every garbage can, pieces of furniture in the streets, fancy cars or brainwashing advertisements at each corner … silently suggesting — ‘have more, work more, earn more, buy more’ in an endless lullaby to have this society spinning round and round.”
Suspended from the ceiling, oversized overalls project this thought, as sewn red images of desserts, electronics, guns, drugs and other items are scattered around the garb.
“It’s not just this relationship with Mexico,” Smith said “But, also this relationship we have with ourselves … America is such a consumer culture, and what are the effects of consumption — the impact — on the rest of the world?”
For Ridone, it was crucial to also address how this type of culture and economy inadvertently falls on the backs of Mexicans, as such societies almost always consume at the expense of others’ raw materials and labor.
She mentions the exhibit is particularly timely now considering new immigration laws targeting Latin Americans and Mexicans benefit the United States.
“This infinite hunger produces an evident imbalance in the equilibrium of the world, with immigration only one among all the above-mentioned spoiling pattern,” Ridone wrote. “The present political and social situation, both in the USA and in the entire western world, is demanding for transparency, justice and consciousness because we are in a very delicate and crucial moment that will decide the future of the entire planet.”
For both Ridone and PMG, a key concept was choosing which medium would be used to depict these notions.
Ridone, who is renowned for her textile creations in Mexico, felt discarded clothing of men, women and children from the country most accurately portrayed the message she was attempting to convey, as the art would not merely act as a showpiece but an experience for visitors.
She also says ceramic and textiles are among the most ancient art forms of civilizations, even furthering humanizing the exhibit.
Ridone’s approach to the project also aligns with PMG’s missions and values of highlighting foreign artists, as the museum features a permanent display of Mexican folklore artifacts.
“The clothing were once worn,” said Adam Mazur, exhibitions manager of PMG. “They’ve embodied the spirit of a certain society, or the certain culture … once it’s composted together to create the installation that’s in our gallery space, it’s a very reflective experience where you are literally walking on — not just the representation of the colors of Mexico — but the individuality of each person.”
Both Smith and Mazur stress that, even though they were slightly concerned about audiences’ reception to the exhibit, visitors have been energized and engaging with the work. They say, like many of their featured artists, Ridone, wholeheartedly responded to societies, communities, and of course, the PMG space.
They hope people feel propelled to shift their mindsets and behaviors about immigration and consumerism, especially regarding Mexico. Although, visitors may feel uncomfortable stepping on the “flag,” it should — and has — evoked a certain emotion.
“My principal aim is to awaken some sort of uneasiness and discomfort in visitors,” Ridone wrote. “I would be completely rewarded if any of these three bodies of work would make people question themselves about their own lifestyle, their values, their system of belief, to increase in this way their consciousness about the world we are currently living in and the hegemonic role American society has claimed from decades to be the example other countries in the world should follow.”
“Down Below: A Reaction to Our Times” runs through July 8 at the Philadelphia Magic Gardens