Reinterpreting purpose, reinterpreting neighborhoods

Art installation and bodega “La Frontera,” encouraged immigrant African American and Latin American communities to come together.

Keir Johnston, one of the co-founders of the “La Frontera,” sits in the bodega created with the goal of building a stronger bond in the North Philadelphia community. | JD Mousley TTN
Keir Johnston, one of the co-founders of the “La Frontera,” sits in the bodega created with the goal of building a stronger bond in the North Philadelphia community. | JD Mousley TTN

When Kimyetta Lewis-Issa attended a block party on 8th Street near Susquehanna Avenue, she brought more than a simple side dish—the Philadelphia native bottled a combination of Ghanaian and African-American culture when she supplied a home-brewed ginger tonic.

“This is what we have at our house,” Lewis-Issa said. “I want you to have some of what I have in my house.”

Sakibu Issa, who moved to Philadelphia from Ghana in 2008, introduced his wife to the ginger tonic that his grandmother prepared for him in West Africa. Lewis-Issa modified the concoction to make it both medicinal and refreshing.

Lewis-Issa was one of several vendors who participated in the opening of “La Frontera,” one of the latest pieces to emerge from the Mural Arts Program’s Open Source series, which aims to engage people in common-place public art.

Categorized as conceptual art, “La Frontera” functions like a co-op, warranting direct interaction with its audience. Residents can fill out a survey in exchange for mock currency, which allows them to purchase food items ranging from Goya black beans to Lewis-Issa’s ginger brew.

“You walk around North Philly, you see people selling things from their porches, from little tables they might put out on a corner, from the back of their cars, what have you,” La Frontera co-creator Ernel Martinez said. “But this is a space where they could actually set up shop and promote their business, sell their goods.”

The block party featured local merchants, community organizations and an eclectic cluster of artists. Colombian-based music group M.A.K.U. Soundsystem blasted Afro-Latino beats while a local barber offered free haircuts.

Amidst the organized chaos, Mural Arts Program founder Jane Golden spoke enthusiastically of “La Frontera” and the mission of Open Source.

“When people say, ‘Who’s your audience?’ we have a quick answer: everyone,” Golden said.

Open Source is the largest project facilitated by Mural Arts to date. It has commissioned 14 artists from around the world and organized 40 events throughout the month.

“We’re immersed in the community,” Mural Arts’ facilitator Keir Johnston said. “If we didn’t include the input from the community, we would be doing a disservice.”

Johnston and Martinez facilitated the project in an effort to bring together the Latino and African-American communities of North Philadelphia. The survey questions attendees complete in exchange for currency focus upon the story of each resident’s migration to the city.

“If we highlight those narratives and then expose some of the similarities between those different perspectives, that becomes a bonding agent within the community,” Martinez said.

Johnston said while “La Frontera” is new to the community, it isn’t unfamiliar. Flanked with a neon “open” sign and ornamented with a sheet of thick glass that separates the cashier from the buyer, the structure resembles a bodega, a staple in North Philadelphian culture.

“You see your neighbors in an environment like this but you don’t really engage with them openly in this space, it’s very much in passing, and we wanted to kind of again create the environment but reinterpret the meaning, reinterpret the purpose, reinterpret how you engage with the space,” Johnston said.

While other Open Source artists have come to the city from places as distant as France and South Korea, Johnston and Martinez have spent years in North Philadelphia.

The multimedia artists are part of Amber Art and Design, a Port Richmond-based arts coalition. They spent six months in an artist residency program on N. Alder Street—blocks away from the perimeter of Main Campus.

“We’ve done our due diligence and research within this community,” Johnston said.

In the past, the duo created a mock restaurant that gave residents meals in exchange for recipes. Currently, their ongoing podium project promotes the voices of residents through social media.

“We started talking about how identity of community changes—it’s by institutions like Temple,” Martinez said. “It’s by these influx of immigrants. It’s constantly in flux. So we’re trying to capture a moment in time where it is today.”

CORRECTION: In a version of the article that appeared in print, Ernel Martinez was identified in the photo, but the individual pictured is Keir Johnston, one of the exhibit’s co-founders.

Angela Gervasi can be reached at

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