What is “American Art?” SWARM at PAFA!

“Americans are a whole hemisphere.” That was Nestor Armando Gil’s response to a question about PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts), the oldest “American” art museum and school in the United States, exhibiting SWARM., which consists of art in collaboration by a Cuban-American and Haitian immigrant and their workshop.  He meant that “America” included all of us from South America, Central America, the Caribbean and North America, and he clearly stated that PAFA is exactly where the art should be. Since both Armando Gil and Didier William, who teamed up to create the works in SWARM are immigrants in the United States, whether one considers “America” to be all the Americas or just the “United States,” their work is part of the “American” tradition. On August 4, 2018, at PAFA, the two artists and the guest curators of the exhibition, Laurel McLaughlin and Mechella Yezernitskaya, both from Bryn Mawr College, discussed the process and works in SWARM.

There are already articles and reviews about SWARM., which is at PAFA from June 30-September 9, as the exhibition opened over a month ago. There is a a detailed online document about it available at: pafa SWARM.  For this blog post, I will write about a few salient ideas from  the presentations and panel discussion.

Both artists were surprised at how much of their work was complementary and how they were influenced or inspired.  Both related to the spirituality and myth of their ancestry–santería in Cuba and vodu in Haiti. Even though Armando Gil had never used printing in his art (he is more of a performance artist), this became a common artistic language between the two. William’s work is detailed with an eclectic use of print and painting, and somewhat representational (with a lot of abstraction) but as he says “illegible.” I liked the skill and technique in both painting and printing that embodied William’s works, and that one could identify certain figures, yet the meaning was open to interpretation.


Artwork by Didier William

I wasn’t able to see the performance of Armando Gil’s “Boca,” but for sure it must have been shocking. In this installation he lies on the floor and substances that symbolize Cuba are poured into his mouth: sand, coffee beans, sugar and tobacco.

Armando Gil also spoke about his performance piece “El Panadero.” In this one, he made 1500 copies of a bag that said “CUBANO BREAD” and baked bread to put in them. He explained that the bilingual play on words could be rearranged to mean “Cuba no bread,” relating to the poverty on the island or “Cuban Bred,” born and raised Cuban. He went to Barcelona (where his grandmother had lived after leaving Cuba) and stood in a plaza with a baker’s hat on, and no shoes. He sang the baker’s song “Panadero, pan gratis” (Baker, free bread) and gave away the bread. His performance pieces tend to be “ritualizations of passages.”

Armando Gil paid more attention to the visual aspect in his pieces while working with William. His tobacco prints evidence that: img_20180804_153813

There are various sculptures in the exhibition, which show Armando Gil’s influence in the collaboration:

When asked about “theoretical influences”, William cited Frantz Fanon, among others and Armando Gil referenced Reinaldo Arenas (fiction), Bell Hooks, and specifically the book Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism, by Bell Hooks and Amalia Mesa-Bains.

SWARM. Forging individual and collective identities across diasporas, dislocations, and reformations is on exhibit in the Historic Landmark Building at PAFA in galleries on the first and second floor.

A “Sound” Collaboration: INTERVALS by Allora & Calzadilla

Picture this: A long hallway, brightly lit in the Perelman Building of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  Spectators and visitors stood around talking. All of a sudden a capella sound filled the hall. The crowd parted as the “Crossing” singers walked down the hall, singing perfectly in tune. This was not easy music and there was no accompaniment or referent. There were silences and much moving around–this was not your typical chorus performance! There was no conductor or chorusmaster (Donald Nally is the musical director of the group but he was not in the performance) to keep the beat or wave a baton for them to follow. One “sees” the intervals as the group moves in relation to the lines that they sing. It is a representation in time and space using their bodies and their voices. The sound was glorious and for sure, this rendition of Christopher Rountree’s In the Midst of Things is a highlight of the exhibition called “Intervals.”

AC IMAGE 3 Raptor's Rapture

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla are both based in Puerto Rio, although Calzadilla is originally from Cuba and Allora is a Philadelphia native. Intervals encompasses the different relationships between time, space, music, visual art and sound. It is a multimedia exhibit that includes musical performances by The Crossing and other groups, installations that combine video, sound, performance and visual arts.

Another intriguing installation in Intervals is “The Great Silence.” This includes videos of parrots in Puerto Rico and images of the the radio telescope in Esperanza, Puerto Rico. This installation is at the The Fabric Workshop and Museum on the second floor and lasts for 16:22 minutes. During this experience, there is text on another screen which imagines that conversation that this endangered species of parrots might have. Ted Chiang, a science fiction author, contributed the dialogue. From The Great Silence subtitles: “Humans have lived alongside parrots for thousands of years, and only recently have they considered the possibility that we might be intelligent. ”

The exhibition INTERVALS, is a collaboration  headed by the performance artists, Allora & Calzadilla. Other partners in this series include: The Crossing, Relâche, David Lang, Ted Chiang, Christopher Rountree, The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Fabric Workshop and Museum. The official opening was on Friday December 12, and the exhibition will continue until April 5, 2015. The calendar is extensive with the films, installations, visual art and performances. For more information: phiilamuseum.org