New mobile museum explores representation in art

PPAC’s “Women’s Mobile Museum” will showcase in Point Breeze later this month.

Danielle Morris, Iris Maldonado Davelle Barnes and Muffy Ashley Torres are four of 10 women who were selected for a residency with the PPAC. In mid-September, the Philadelphia Photos Arts Center partnered with South African visual activist Zanele Muholi to create the Women’s Mobile Museum. The yearlong residency features the photography of 10 selected Philadelphia woman exploring the physical, societal and emotional barriers of art, giving voice to underrepresented individuals. The exhibit is reaching various corners of the city, including Point Breeze in mid-October. (GRACE MAIORANO/South Philly Review)

What is art, and whom, exactly, is it for?

These were questions contemplated by 10 Philadelphia women over the past year, as they delved into a Philadelphia Photo Arts Center residency and apprenticeship program led by internationally renowned South African artist-activist Zanele Muholi in her first major U.S.-based project.

Using their own stories of suffering, and ultimately resilience, the women of all ages, each descending from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, reduced and reinterpreted representation in art through PPAC and Muholi’s collaboration of the “Women’s Mobile Museum” — a multi-neighborhood exhibition traveling to communities around the city, including Point Breeze in mid-October.

From themes such as racist rules and regulations in the military to inner city displacement of black and brown families, an assemblage of mixed-medium art manifests a landscape of truths experienced by minorities and women.

“(Muholi) is always thinking about accessibility and representation in art and why art is kept away from certain people,” said 24-year-old apprentice Danielle Morris. “And then why those same people are often times not represented in art. … The idea was to make art accessible to the people that, one, are unwelcomed into some of those spaces and then also, don’t see themselves reflected in fine art.”

“Part of this project, we’ve done some archival research and are trying to find representation in the past in art of people who look like us and that was null, obviously, and so, that prompted us to make more art that looks like us,” added 25-year-old apprentice Muffy Ashley Torres. “So, we answer those questions.”

In January, the women, who range from 21 to 52 years old, went through an interview and application process before finally being selected. Over the course of the following months, they not only received photography training from Muholi but also South African teaching artist Lindeka Qampi, as well as PPAC’s exhibitions and programs coordinator Lori Waselchuk.

A part of the preparation included processing their stories with a psychiatrist, as eventually the women, some of whom did not have prior photography experience, coupled new artistic skills with their unheard voices.

Whether recreating scenes as a former army sergeant in Afghanistan or simply capturing their daily lives as mothers, the apprentices embarked around the city with cameras in hand.

Some works were accompanied with video and sound footage, as well.

“The idea of being able to document yourself and being able to document what you see around you in your community, in your people, in marginalized communities — not only as a form of activism but as a way to prove existence,” Morris said.

The exhibition aims toward all layers of accessibility, as, aside from literally bringing the exhibit into spaces like Juniata Park Boys and Girls Club in North Philly and Diversified Community Services-Dixon House in South Philly, the entire project is also tailored to the visually and physically impaired.

While the entire exhibition is constructed with ADA compliance, the apprentices also worked alongside Sister Elaine George of the Juniata Action Committee, who helped to make the work reachable for the blind.

Each photo description includes a braille translation, a detailed audio recording of one of the photos from the artists and some kind of tangible items that are an extension of the photos, correlating with the stories, such as candles or even subway seats.

“We’re pretty much preaching accessibility to art,” Morris said. “We’re thinking about — where have we stopped thinking about accessibility?”


While the six-month exhibition, which will also showcase at PPAC and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, runs through March, the artists say they intend to add more elements to the project and extend its run elsewhere, hoping to reach as many Philadelphia communities.

For the women, being mentored by renowned international artists and also having their photos publicly displayed were certainly gratifying but, perhaps, not even the most empowering aspect.

Weaving their heartaches and happiness onto one plane in one space is the true beauty of the mobile museum.

“It just makes us stronger. It just makes our work together stronger,” said 50-year-old appreteince Iris Maldonado. “If I were to exhibit my work in one place alone, it would not have as much power as it has with all of the collective of the other women here. I think it’s like, all together, we are actually stronger than one.”

Info: The Women’s Mobile Museum will be on display from Oct. 27 to Nov. 17, at the Diversified Community Services — Dixon House, located at 1529 S. 22nd St. in Point Breeze.