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Ortiz grew up near the Italian Market, which is home to countless of other immigrants in South Philadelphia. Photo: Michelle Angela Ortiz/Nathan Venzara.
Ortiz grew up near the Italian Market, which is home to countless of other immigrants in South Philadelphia. Photo: Michelle Angela Ortiz/Nathan Venzara.

Michelle Angela Ortiz, telling migrant stories through public art and more

Ortiz’s work will feature in a new exhibition set to go live at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on May 7 alongside 25 other established artists.

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Michelle Angela Ortiz has been creating visual artwork representing community stories for years.

From creating art installations to producing documentaries on the struggles of Latinos at detention centers, Ortiz’s work is deeply rooted in Philadelphia and expands to other cities in the United States.

Ortiz has been a part of the Philadelphia art scene since she was young. Her first experience of mural painting was the painting of Frank Rizzo, which was recently painted over in the Italian Market in response to the uprisings around police violence in the Summer of 2020.

“I saw the mural getting painted, and I asked my mother if she could come with me to speak to the lady who was painting the mural,” Ortiz said in a recent interview with AL DIA News. “The woman would not speak to me, she was brushing me off, but I kept telling my mother that I will be a muralist one day.”

The incident gave Ortiz the confidence to create murals all over the world.

“I never gave up,” she said.

Ortiz was born and raised in South Philadelphia to a Puerto Rican father and Colombian-born mother. 

Since growing up and spreading her wings in the art world, she has led art for social change public art projects in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and as a cultural envoy through the U.S. embassies in Fiji, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Venezuela, Honduras, and Cuba.

“My mother is a Colombian immigrant, I am speaking on my mother's journey as well as others,” said Ortiz.

Now, she is heading back home to support more Latino immigrant families that have been faced with racism and backlash for their existence.

She’s doing it through a new exhibit set to premiere at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

New Grit: Art & Philly Now will display contemporary art created by established artists “with strong Philadelphia connections.”

The exhibit runs from May 7 to Aug. 22, 2021, and Ortiz is featured alongside other artists, including Howardena Pindell, Odili Donald Odita, Roberto Lugo, Kukuli Veralde, Jesse Krimes, and many more.

She is also working on her third phase for her ongoing work called, Families Separadas Project. 

Each phase acts as “ripples of water.”

The project began in 2013, coinciding with the rise in deportations from the U.S.

The first phase was when Ortiz unveiled five large-scale public art installations in the city of Philadelphia.

The second phase was created between 2017-2019, and it stretched across Pennsylvania to bring awareness to the stories of 14 mothers detained for two years at the Berks County Residential Center, the first of three family detention centers in the U.S.

It has also included eight art installations in the state capitol of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a statewide action co-organized with the Shut Down Berks Coalition, and the making of her short documentary, Las Madres de Berks, which focuses on the trials and tribulations of families staying at the detention facility.

Ortiz’s third phase will further highlight the experiences of families that have been affected by deportation and ICE.

A series of large-scale public art installations will become visual platforms activated by storytelling videos and audio performances in the communities that reside near immigrant detention facilities.

Another project Ortiz has been working on is her "Arrival and Belonging" initiative, which includes a large multi-screen installation and events highlighting the experiences of community members throughout the city.

The project is a two-part project commissioned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ortiz has spent a lot of time speaking to different people on their experiences regarding migration.

One person, in particular, is Carlos Torres, a Puerto Rican native who left the island following Hurricane Maria.

“He has only been here around three years, and he speaks about the struggles that he went through in Puerto Rico,” she said. “He talks about the resources that he found at the Free Library of Philadelphia on 6th and Lehigh, where he currently works.”

Torres considers Philadelphia as his new home and talks more about his struggles in Puerto Rico amid Hurricane Maria.

Las Madres de Berks will be broadcasted on PBS/ WHYY on Thursday, April 29 at 7:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. on WHYY.

The opening of New Grit: Art & Philly Now will be on May 7, 2021.

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