Walking through Mantua, Fishtown or the Gayborhood, I can turn a corner and stumble upon massive paintings on the sides of buildings, all thanks to Mural Arts Philadelphia.
Now, in a time of political protests of different monuments across the country, Mural Arts is encouraging us to think about another form of urban craftsmanship: the public monument.
Monument Lab, a Mural Arts program that runs until Nov. 19, was founded on the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” More than 20 local and international artists have attempted to answer this question through installations exploring historical recognition.
This past summer, violence occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia before the removal of a monument of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In Philadelphia, citizens have been calling for Mayor Frank Rizzo’s statue to be removed from the steps of the Municipal Services Building. It is evident that more people are thinking about how their communities choose to document history.
History is influential, but, through opportunities like Monument Lab, we have the opportunity to write a different future. I think we should pay close attention.
After visiting some Monument Lab exhibits, I was moved by Cuban-born artist Tania Bruguera’s “Monument to New Immigrants” on the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ campus at Broad and Cherry streets. The unfired clay sculpture is designed to weather in the elements, so it can later be replaced by a new one. Bruguera is representing “arrival, adaption and renewal,” according to the Mural Arts website.
Paul Farber, a Monument Lab curator, said Bruguera’s installation “embodies the spirit of the project…unearthing the next chapter of the future of monuments.”
I can hardly believe Monument Lab was planned five years ago, because it has graced Philadelphia when it’s most needed.
“We’re in a tense, urgent moment when it comes to monuments,” Farber said. “And in a way they’ve come to light for public debate in a sweeping fashion, but a lot of the conversations about social justice have been brewing for some time.”
Our city is finally recognizing those often excluded from traditional monuments. Monument Lab is giving credit where credit is due by allowing underrepresented voices to comment on “issues of social justice and solidarity, including matters of race, gender, sexuality, class, and national belonging,” according to the Mural Arts’ website.
Having minority groups tell their stories is important because it spreads awareness of their struggles in an effort to shift norms and rewrite them into the story of this city and country.
“When we started Monument Lab, it was not merely an exercise in public imagination,” Farber said. “It was meant to be a kind of collective writing of history that included more stories, more figures, more perspectives than are ordinarily rendered in bronze and marble.”
Monument Lab has even inspired me to think about the people after whom we name our buildings. Temple lost one of its own recently when Edie Windsor, a gay rights icon and a 1950 College of Liberal Arts alumna, passed away. That’s someone I’d like to see honored by the university. As a queer person, her example means a lot to me.
“Of course the conditions vary from context to context, but what we’re seeing is a broad reckoning with the monuments we’ve inherited, and a hunger to write the next chapter,” Farber said.
We need to commemorate groups of people who are usually blotted out of history books and memorial nameplates. And while the works in Monument Lab are limited by time, that shouldn’t stop us from adopting the mindset of inclusivity.