The Women’s Mobile Museum: “What is art?” and “Who is art for?”
Through the residency program and gallery, the Women’s Mobile Museum explores representation and accessibility in art.
On Jan. 24, the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC) hosted the opening night of the Women’s Mobile Museum (WMM), a traveling museum gallery that explores the purpose of art and who art is for. The work showcased in the museum is the culmination of an apprenticeship and residency program through PPAC, featuring 10 women of various ages, ethnicities, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds who are self-taught or unknown in the art world.
The Women’s Mobile Museum “seeks to answer its core goal: to challenge the social and economic barriers of the art world while supporting emerging artists and reaching new audiences,” according to a press release for the event. The gallery explores themes of representation, remembrance, and identity. To increase accessibility, the exhibit is also available to audiences through braille and audio tours.
The program was led by Zanele Muholi, a South African artist and activist, making it their first major project based in the United States.
The exhibit was curated by Renée Mussai, a writer, art historian, and curator based in London. Along with Muholi and Mussai, Lindeka Qampi, a South African teaching artist, helped to mentor the women.
The program started in Feb. 2018 and the gallery has been touring Philadelphia since Sept. 2018, visiting both the Juniata Park Boys & Girls Club and the Dixon House in Point Breeze. The opening night at the PPAC featured a conversation with Mussai and the artists, followed by a reception and the launch of the WMM Magazine featuring, essays, poetry, interviews, and photography from the women.
The magazine is still available for purchase at the PPAC.
According to Lori Waselchuk, the exhibitions and programs coordinator at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, about 450 people attended the opening reception of the gallery at PPAC.
Waselchuk worked as a professional photographer for 25 years doing both editorial and documentary work, and she also served as the director of the WMM.
“It’s been a transformative process,” Waselchuk said. “The artists, from the lead artist to the apprenticed artists in the project, came to the project with really powerful ideas and life experiences and I've just admired how hard they’ve worked and the courage they brought to their photography and their projects and their writing.
After the PPAC center proposed the idea of a residency program, Muholi created the concept of the WMM. Muholi and Waselchuk have known each other for many years and worked together to develop a structure in order to implement the idea.
Waselchuk believes this project has had many powerful impacts on the artists, who have already received various opportunities through the exposure of the WMM. The artists also have a strong support group, both professionally and personally. They plan to continue collaborating in the future.
“I have a feeling that, as intended, this project has been able to support emerging artists and women who have dreamed of becoming artists but haven’t had the ability to pursue that idea,” Waselchuk said. “It has supported them so strongly that I think they will be able to pursue and continue their work at different levels, but I think it’s really enabled each of the artists to develop a stronger practice and develop the connections and skills to continue to build that practice, which is exactly the intention.”
As the director, Waselchuk worked closely with the women as they worked hard to make their dreams become a reality.
It also had an impact on the residents of Juniata Park and Point Breeze. The exhibit’s visit to these neighborhoods was special because for many, it was their first time in a museum.
"Many expressed being really moved by the work and the by women’s voices, and the overall sort of ideas of representation and access,” Waselchuk said. “For the people who attended from the neighborhoods, I felt like it impacted their thinking and their ideas and maybe even their interest in photography and the arts.”
Waselchuk also believes that the WMM will have a powerful impact on the traditional audiences at PPAC and PAFA, forcing them to examine their own views on art and photography, to explore representation in art as well as who is traditionally represented in museums, and to understand that photography can be accessible to anyone.
The WMM features the following artists: afaq, Shasta Bady, Davelle Barnes Tash Billington, Iris Maldonado, Danielle Morris, Shana-Adina Roberts, Carrie-Anne Shimborski, Muffy Ashley Torres, and Andrea Walls.
Two of the artists involved in the project, Iris Maldonado and Muffy Ashley Torres, identify as Latina. They shared their stories and the inspiration behind their work.
Maldonado is originally from Farjardo, Puerto Rico. Aside from having her Associate’s Degree in Human Services, she is also a poet, photographer, and Reiki practitioner.
Maldonado’s first exposure to photography was through an elective class in high school. She enjoyed the process of developing film in the darkroom and being able to watch an image form from a negative; through this experience, her love of photography formed.
Maldonado found out about the WMM residency program while reading the newspaper. She wanted to go to art school but could not afford it at the time. She decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
Now, Maldonado’s favorite thing about process is being able to express her feelings and emotions through her images, even to people she has never met before. The goal of her self-portrait series was to work on personal acceptance, loving herself, and learning how to better understand herself. Although it has sometimes been a challenge at times, according to Maldonado, she has learned to love herself and appreciate her images through this series. Her work at the PPAC, titled “Earthly,” is different from the work she shared at previous galleries.
“And for me it is really important what I’m doing right now because I can express myself, I can express how I feel, how I think, how I would like to help other people, just with an image” Maldonado said. “I can talk about my past experience or what I want for the future. Just in an image. I think an image says so much.”
She believes that photography is powerful because it allows people to advocate for themselves through their images, as well as other groups of people. Specifically, Maldonado’s goal is to advocate for women.
“Every single experience that I have in the past, things that are not too good, things that are really not too pleasant—because in life you always go through things that are very difficult—but basically they teach you. They teach you how to be a better person, they teach you how to have a character, they teach you how to be yourself. And for me that’s really, really important.”
Maldonado’s advice, especially for teenagers, is that they should not let the opinions of others stop them from achieving their goals.
“The most important thing is for them to express who they are, how they feel, and accomplish their goals...and just trust themselves that they can do what they feel empowered to do.”
Torres has always been immersed in the arts, whether is was listening to music or viewing murals around the neighborhood with her parents. From a young age, art has helped Torres find her voice and express her emotions. Painting and drawing allowed her to express her feelings when words could not, especially after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, lupus, as a child.
The self-taught artist has always loved photography; prior to the Women’s Mobile Museum, she mainly took pictures of her friends and content for social media.
Torres found out about the WMM opportunity through a friend, who sent her a link about the information sessions. At the time, she was working as a STEM educator but decided to apply for the program; she was selected to interview and was soon accepted into the program as an apprentice. Her life has not been the same since that moment, according to Torres.
“We have people teaching us photo skills and how to audition and we have the mentorship of Muholi, which has been amazing and really taught us the technical skills to get out there and get your shot. So it's been really great and I feel incredibly fortunate to have been chosen.”
Torres compared her experience of learning photographic techniques, compositional skills, and using artistic language to the emotions she felt while trying to find her voice at a young age. Although it was difficult, she was determined to develop her photography skills to the best of her ability.
Torres was born in Philadelphia, but her family has roots in Puerto Rico; her mom is originally from Humacao and her dad is from Manati. Her parents have always incorporated their culture and traditions into their lives, according to Torres, and the themes of culture and family are both very prominent in her work.
“Family is essential and it’s truly the theme of my whole project with Women’s Mobile Museum and I guess I wouldn't be here without them, so how could I detach them from any of my big projects?”, said Torres.
Torres’ series is called, “Fundación Fuerte,” or “Strong Foundation,” which pays tribute to her family home. The home was originally destroyed by a fire; in the process of rebuilding, a newly developed housing complex fell onto the home and further destroyed it, ultimately displacing the family.
Originally, she planned to document her family’s emotions; however, she soon realized how much this experience was affecting her. She decided to start taking self-portraits as a way to express her own emotions — specifically grief, loss, and heartbreak.
“So I turned the camera around and I started taking self-portraits within the house's gutted out structure and I started channeling their emotions and giving homage to my family through that,” Torres said.
Torres expanded her body of work for the PPAC show to include a floor to ceiling print of what she calls “one of her proudest photos,” and also added a video component.
Torres’ advice to anyone who wants to learn photography is to put the time and effort into the practice because the results will be rewarding.
“My advice would be to do it, and to commit to it. I would say just practice and practice” Torres said. “Art is something that you have to dedicate yourself to...You really have to put in the time and effort. And the outcome will be definitely worth it.”