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What is a Philadelphia identity? In her most recent work, artist Michelle Ortiz explodes any facile definition

June 4, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
You may have seen Michelle Ortiz‘s work in one of those murals that contributes to Philadelphia’s reputation as a city filled with art. But Ortiz’s newest work is at once less monumental and more expansive.

Ortiz is one of the 25 artists that the Philadelphia Art Museum commissioned to develop a new piece specifically for the show “New Grit: Art and Philly Now“, which opened in early May. In her “Arrival and Belonging,” Ortiz brings together a large-scale multiscreen video installation with light-boxes, text, and even a series of associated events, all highlighting the experiences of residents building community throughout the city.

“The idea behind [the artwork] really questions how do we honor our points of arrival? When do we call a place a home?  And how do we define belonging?” Ortiz told Generocity.  “So I wanted to reach out to four different Philadelphians and connect with them and through a number of different conversations and interviews, I was able to really capture their range of lived experiences.”

“Arrival and Belonging” is a large-scale multiscreen video installation by Michelle Angela Ortiz. (Courtesy photo)

“Arrival and Belonging” tells the stories of Fatu Gayflor, a West Philadelphian from Worlala, Liberia, who fled the First Liberian Civil War; Jamaal Henderson, a recent resident and a prominent local advocate for housing rights for those experiencing homelessness; Carlos Torres, a North Philadelphian who left Puerto Rico due to the devastating impacts of climate change; and Epifania Ortiz, a South Philadelphia resident.

Gayflor, a singer and dancer, came to Philadelphia and found her home amongst other Liberian refugees.

“And so she shared with me in her story, [how] she lost her young son during the war and how she used every opportunity on stage to sing a song to her son in the hopes of finding him,” Ortiz said. “I felt that was really interesting in terms of how she utilizes song and her platform to be able to sing out to her lost child, but also speak to so many other refugees that have experienced loss.”

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Ortiz added that “Arrival and Belonging” is about the struggle and challenge of finding home, but at the same time presents a different perspective of what Philadelphia identity is.

The artwork is also informed by the story of Ortiz’s mother, who emigrated from Colombia.

“I wanted to include her story among the four because her story and her arrival is connected to how I arrived in Philadelphia, and so thinking about honoring my mother’s story through her immigration from a small town called Mompox,” Ortiz said. “Mompox being a place where she experienced a lot of poverty — my mother didn’t necessarily live in the streets, but most of her childhood she lived in different houses.”

Ortiz’s grandmother was a single mother of six children and was always trying to find a way to put a roof over the heads of her children. Because she did not have a stable home, the family moved around a lot while residing in Colombia. Eventually, she did find a home, but there were still a lot of issues around her children being able to go to school or having enough food on the table.

What was interesting, Ortiz said, was that there were parts of her mother’s story that she didn’t even know until she interviewed her as part of creating the artwork.

Detail from “Arrival and Belonging” by Michelle Angela Ortiz. (Courtesy photo)

“Most people assume because I’m a muralist I’m just doing paintings and murals all the time, but this piece is actually a brand new [kind] work that encompasses all of my skills,” Ortiz said.

“The community engagement component of this work and having the interviews with community members … there are some phrases of their stories incorporated in the actual piece as well as photographs they’ve shared with me or photos that I’ve taken that really support the story, that illustrate the story,” she added. As an extension of that engagement, she will be leading an online discussion with Gayflor and Henderson on June 22.

Ortiz told Generocity that she stays away from galleries and museum spaces that tokenize or in any way support stereotypes, and that consideration is an important part of her conversations with museum curators. If her work is to be featured, she wants it to be an authentic way that is true to her process with the community. The presentation of the work needs to also reflect that process.

“My expectation of [PMA] shifted because I was really able to connect with Erica Battle and speak to her about my ideas and how I wanted to evolve,” Ortiz said. “I’m grateful about [PMA] honoring the process not only of the final product of the installation but also the importance of acknowledging community members, not just in the artwork, but even within the programming.”

Ortiz will lead an online discussion on June 22 with two community members featured in her installation.

The process of putting together the New Grit exhibit was both a challenging and a rewarding experience, according to Battle, the exhibit’s curator.

Curators with different areas of expertise came together to include works in media of all kinds — ceramics, glass, sculpture, painting, video, performance, quilts and textiles, even works made from digital imaging and 3D printing. “We are a large museum with many curatorial departments, and it’s easy to get too comfortable operating in your own silo,” Battle said.

“So we had to learn about each other’s areas … and look at a broad swath of creators and makers. We presented works to each other, went to studio visits together, and ultimately came up with the idea of focusing on recent work by 25 artists arranged thematically.”

It was vital, Battle added, to open the museum’s newly expanded spaces with a refreshed relationship to the city and a new look at what kinds of interdisciplinary and experimental art that is being made in — or inspired by — Philadelphia.

Battle said that she was excited to commission new work from Ortiz for the exhibit “because her approach transcends the museum and gallery context and takes effect in the world.”

“Michelle herself is unique, she is an artist and an activist, a maker and a doer, and she continues to find ways to thread lived experiences of others into her art. Her work is not simply reflective of social and political issues but actively engages with them,” Battle said.

“Her work is also rooted not just in activism but in empathy in deep feeling and earnest action that makes plain the stakes of community so it can help foster greater understanding.”

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