I stand at the corner of 53rd and Lansdowne Avenue. Cars zip by on their way to the nearby gas station, crossing the busy intersection. Behind me stands a row of houses in an array of colors: red, beige, grey. With my back against the houses, I look ahead at a small patch of grass. There lies Dream, Diaspora, and Destiny: a mural installed on a 25 feet by 125 feet wall painted in blues, purples, and pinks.
The mural blends the past, the present, and the future. Plants intertwine with futuristic geometric shapes, tribal patterns mix with machinery cogs. Despite the understated color scheme, the mural overwhelms, teeming with details obscured by similar shades.
Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny is a monument to time and the African diaspora. It reviews the history and interprets the future, all in the context of transcendence. Scenes from the mural depict ancestral legacies while simultaneously imagining utopian futures. On the left side of the mural, blue and purple rings alternate. Glimpses of faces lay in between patterns illustrated in dark blue. Questions of humanity, reality, and possibility swirl.
The mural, located in West Philadelphia’s Conestoga neighborhood, was completed in October 2018. The mural was a collaborative effort between music producer and DJ King Britt and muralist Joshua Mays. Student artists from the Shoemaker Campus at Mastery Charter School and The Haverford School also worked on the mural through the Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Art Education program, sponsored by the 25th Century Foundation.
However, the mural’s look at the future doesn’t end with a physical installation. Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny is also the city’s first mural with augmented reality. Blue Visual Effects created an iOS app called MuralArtsAR, where viewers can interact with the mural through their phone. After downloading the app, users select “Mural Experience,” and move across the piece, stopping at important sections to access 3-D graphics, an original score from DJ King Britt, and interviews with community members.
The plants and shapes lining the mural come to life on the app, forming part of a lifelike landscape. Moving across, users encounter anachronistic purple statues. At each, a clip from an interview with a community member plays.
In the mural’s center, a person holds a small ball of white light. The light radiates outwards, with rainbow-colored in increasing opacity reaching the edge of the mural. Blue beams from the ball also pierce the mural, fragmenting the wall into distinct pieces.
A powerful score also transports the viewer on a journey across time and space. Weaving in between music and interviews, the sounds of the mural go from “Section 2 — African,” “Section 4 — Jazz,” “Section 6 — Hip Hop,” and finally, after the mural’s turning point, settles into futuristic tracks with “Section 8 — The Future,” and “Section 9 — The Future P 2.” Each track plays on a loop, and when moving along the mural, the sounds bleed into each other, playing in the background of other tracks or interviews. While walking back and forth across the patch of grass, the viewer has the illusion of time–traveling.
At “Section 7 — Interlude #4,” one community member says, “I see the mural as a timeline leading up to the important ‘now’ moment. The future is represented by the main figure engaging this seed. The glowing point at the center of the mural is the potential that ultimately unfolds and creates culture and creates a ripple effect into future generations.”
Even if users are not at the mural, they can select “Independent Experience,” and view the piece in their own surroundings. People can “plant a seed” on any surface on the ground, which blooms into the actual mural. The narrative of planting a seed echoes throughout the interviews. Together, they emphasize legacy and growth.
At “Section 5 — Interlude #3,” a member says, “This mural represents many things: community, the continuation of legacy, and a new perspective on what is possible, what can be, and what will be. It’s laid the seed for the next generation.”
A year before the unveiling of this mural, Britt and Mays also led a one–night–only performance on October 14, 2017 in West Philadelphia’s Malcolm X Park. The performance touched on themes similar to those of the mural, focusing on the image of a youth monument for the future.
Joshua Mays, born in Denver, is a self–taught artist and muralist. Though he currently resides in Oakland, California, Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny is not his only mural in Philadelphia. Mays also created a mural of acclaimed singer Marian Anderson on the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in the Washington Square West neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia native DJ King Britt helped curate the soundtrack featured on the app and constantly pushes the boundaries of sound. Britt received a Pew Fellowship from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Britt also established Back2Basics, an innovative practice that merged live band performances with DJs. Britt used this style as the original DJ on Digable Planets, which won a Grammy Award.
Britt has also focused on curating musical events, combining music, culture, and performing arts, which made him a perfect fit for this particular project. He has also curated collaborations for MoMA PS1, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
This entire project was a collaboration with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nation’s largest public art program. Mural Arts focuses on uniting the community and demonstrating the transformative power of public art. In over 30 years of existence, the program has supported the creation of nearly 4,000 works.
Clearly, the program pursues a worthy goal. There are certain places we expect to consume art. We float around galleries or museums with walls lined with paintings, or floors dotted with sculptures. Even though we spend hours in museums, it often feels rushed—to the next work, the next room, the next floor.
But sometimes, art exists where you least expect it. Murals root themselves in the community. Installed on walls with other functions, they serve as more than just art. On the wall where Dreams, Diaspora, and Destiny is installed, you can still see windows and signs that say “No Dumping, $300 Fine". Murals find you when you are least aware and demand your attention. You walk down the street, stop, and stare, completely lost in your own thoughts.
While I was grateful for the chance to experience this mural and the accompanying app, a part of me realized I disturbed something sacred. I Ubered to the mural from Huntsman Hall, too focused on the cold to bother figuring out how to SEPTA. While standing, I was conscious of how busy Lansdowne Avenue was: people getting gas, driving home, buying food. And there I stood, transplanted from the campus of an institution that gentrifies this city on a daily basis.
This mural was not meant for me: it was meant for a community continuously trying to forge and preserve its place in the world while surrounded by people who will never honor its history or potential. This mural is for children and parents and ancestors and descendants and the past and the future. It is for an audience that transcends time but must exist within it.