The stairs sag under a film of sawdust on the way up to the warehouse’s second floor. On another night, the place might be deserted. But on Wednesday, September 26, it's the Philadelphia equivalent of a Bushwick art party, with local hipsters and families mingling with street artists whose work found shelter in this temporary warehouse. Entering the room, it's impossible to miss the greeter from Indivisible.
“Are you registered to vote?"
More often than not, said Nancy Cunningham, the coordinator of Indivisible’s presence at the event, guests tonight answer yes. These are politically engaged people. The main question that Conrad Benner, the event’s curator and the founder of StreetsDept.com, asked himself as a curator was "is it better—and I think the answer is pretty obvious—is it better when we have a government that’s more reflective of us if everyone voted?"
The scene at the "To the Polls" opening party is at once constructed and natural. During the day, the space would swell with light from the windows facing 10th Street. But tonight, colored lights dance around the white–washed walls and cast red and blue tints onto the murals.
The exhibition features ten Philadelphia–based artists and is co–sponsored by Mural Arts Philadelphia and Streets Dept. Exhibiting artists received an 8–by–8 piece of plywood and an open–ended task: create a piece of art that encourages not just voting but civic participation. To choose the artists, Benner looked at "who was creating interesting street artwork that talked about issues of social and political justice,” and settled due to budget and space constraints on ten artists. They include Lovies Wise, whose work has been featured in the New Yorker, Nilé Livingston, an “artist, vegan, and entrepreneur” whose mural work can be found at the 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue playground, and YOMI, a street artist with work all over Philadelphia.
On the night of the event, Benner held court by the doors, lamenting the “16–hour days” he’d pulled to get the exhibition and launch party running smoothly. Trendy locals, some with children but mostly millennial–looking couples and groups, milled around, drinking free beer and whiskey from the Love City Brewing and Powers tables set up in the back corner.
Filling the space were the artworks and artists themselves. Each piece focused on a different aspect. Some were more general, like BLUR's piece “AREN’T YOU TIRED” with Jenny Holzer–esque italics blaring “AREN’T YOU TIRED OF BEING SILENT?” on a background of open mouths.
Others focused in.
Nilé Livingston’s piece “To the Polls” is a pastiche of George Caleb Bingham’s 1854 painting “” While Bingham’s original work features an all–white cast mobbing a polling place, Livingston's featured black citizens congregating. Her artist’s statement cited an intent to “explore representation and amend what can be viewed as important by replacing many of the figures from the painting with subjects that can testify to the status of black people and black women throughout American history.”
While Benner said ahead of the event that “none of the murals will be political, it’s not an anti-this administration or anti–that administration,” the atmosphere skewed towards social justice, and, if not the politicization of the present, at least a more inclusive revisionist history.
Willis "Nomo" Humphrey's “Washington, Portrait of an American President" held court in the center of the room. It featured a stark rendering of what from afar looks to be a simple portrait of George Washington. A few steps closer reveal, making up his face and eyes, a rendering of enslaved people. The work, originally digital, was adapted for this exhibition—Nomo painted it using acrylic. The powerful and simple piece didn’t directly address voting at all. It didn’t have to.
The artist’s statement links “the origins of American history and the horrors of American slavery.” “I just felt as an artist, I could speak to all that,” Nomo said at the event.
Voting is in its essence a political act, and featured artists didn’t shy away from the often–ugly past of voting rights in this country. Benner, in advance of the exhibition, echoed a similar point, that voting systems are often "built purposefully confusing to keep a lot of people out, which sucks.”
While many of the people engaged enough to attend the event already were registered to vote—leaving the Indivisible volunteers to pack up early at the launch party—artists and organizers hope that this art will encourage turnout at the polls on November 6.
Down the line, Benner said, “there’s a chance that this could turn into a more regular thing every two or four years.” But, he adds, in his time at StreetsDept and in the Philadelphia public art scene, “there hasn’t been anything quite like this.”
The exhibition will be on view at 448 N 10th Street from September 26, 2018 through October 3, 2018, with viewing hours and on–site voter registration from 12—5 p.m. with the exception of September 29.
Register to vote in Pennsylvania here. The deadline for registration is October 9, 2018.