On the entrance wall of Penn’s Arthur Ross Gallery is an artwork made of textured rice paper infused with indigo dye and dotted with balls of white cotton and clumps of Black hair, all links to the experience of the artist’s enslaved ancestors on a South Carolina plantation.
The last in a numbered series, “Production 5” is by Adebunmi Gbadebo, whose other works in the exhibition include wood balusters and church pews carved by her family in the 1800s.
“All of these are the materials that speak to my ancestors’ labor, their lives, their artistry,” she said to the nearly 100 people gathered for the exhibition opening. “It’s the monument to them.”
The artworks by the four artists in the new exhibition, “Songs for Ritual and Remembrance,” on view through Sept. 17, uplift histories that have been repressed and underrepresented, said Emily Zimmerman, assistant director and curator of the Arthur Ross Gallery.
“Each of the artworks has stories to tell, stories that carry the weight of lives that are known and unknown,” Zimmerman said. “These are stories about the way the body holds knowledge and the way that community holds memory.”
The exhibition features the work of Ken Lum, chair of the Department of Fine Arts in Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design, as well as New York-based Guadalupe Maravilla, Seattle-based Mary Ann Peters, and Gbadebo, who is currently based in Philadelphia.
“In choosing these artists, I was trying to arrive at a constellation of different concerns and different historical moments that we could uplift in the exhibition,” Zimmerman said, “while also thinking about what would be relevant in the context of Philadelphia at this moment.”
A curator with a lifelong Penn connection
This is the first exhibition curated by Zimmerman, who joined the Gallery staff last year. She grew up in West Philadelphia and on Penn’s campus. “I learned to ride a bike on Locust Walk,” she said. And she studied in the Fisher Fine Arts Library, next to the gallery where she now works.
Her father, Franklin B. Zimmerman, a musicologist and conductor who celebrated his 100th birthday on June 20, taught music at Penn from 1968 to 1993 and founded the Pennsylvania Pro Musica ensemble. Her mother, Mary Jane Fitch, also worked at Penn, from 1969 to 1978.
Emily Zimmerman came to the Arthur Ross Gallery after five years at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design in Seattle. She earned her master’s degree in curatorial studies from Bard College and her bachelor’s degree in art history from New York University and, 20 years ago, was a curatorial intern at Penn’s Institute of Contemporary Art.
An artist in residence at Philadelphia’s Clay Studio, Gbadebo says she and Zimmerman had several conversations before she agreed to exhibit her work at Penn. “I think one of the beautiful things about artists is we have a way of entering spaces and interrogating them all at the same time, from the inside and the outside,” Gbadebo said. “So, I hope my work serves those conversations.”
Historic experiences expressed
Gbadebo’s works incorporate the cotton, indigo, and rice grown on the True Blue Plantation in Fort Motte, South Carolina, where her ancestors were enslaved.
During the pandemic, Gbadebo traveled to the plantation to take her mother’s ashes to the burial ground. While there she decided to collect the red clay soil to create ceramic works.
“That was the first time that I ran my fingers through the red earth. I was thinking a lot in that moment about all of that has been erased and lost,” she said. “The humans, my family, their ancestors, the blood, the tears, their flesh, all the pain, trauma, everything that has happened on that land is in the soil.”
The exhibition includes “In Memory of K. Smalls died 19?? HFS,” a head-shaped vessel made of the red clay, embedded with individual grains of Carolina Gold rice. A soundscape playing in the gallery combines the sound of her running from the plantation and her family singing a hymn, “Sit Down Servant,” at a funeral.
Other Gbadedo works include “Remains, piece of Balcony Baluster, 1848,” the wood balcony railing pieces, just a bit of the white paint remaining, lined up on a wall. Carved by her enslaved ancestors for the McCord House, now owned by University of South Carolina, she salvaged the balusters when they were discarded during a renovation. Similarly, there are two church pews in the Gallery that she says were carved by her emancipated ancestors in 1890 for the Jerusalem Church on the plantation.
“Within the history of modern and contemporary art, these might be considered found objects, like Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, but in this case they’re deeply meaningful objects that speak to repressed histories within the U.S. and also her own ancestry,” Zimmerman says.
Human hair sourced from people of the African diaspora is a signature material in her works, growing out of her search for material that she feels like “is my history, my culture, that is grounded in our spirituality, our politics, that comes from us, that is us—and that is Black hair,” says Gbadebo.
The stories of Syrian silk workers in the 1880s, known as the factory girls of Mount Lebanon, are the foundation for the artworks by Peters. The pieces are based on her archival research at the University of North Carolina. The women and girls worked together to successfully negotiate an increase in their wages and better working conditions.
Peters’ work “impossible monument (the threads that bind)” is made of brightly colored silk fabric and thread spilling into piles on the floor, hanging from a carved wooden piece inspired by Ottoman architecture. Melting glycerin is incorporated into the fabric, a metaphor, Peters says, for sweat and tension.
Peters created the piece specifically for the Arthur Ross exhibition as part of her “impossible monument” series, which she started about five years ago “to bring forward narratives that were ignored or sidelined because they weren't designated to be worthy enough.”
The theme of labor justice is also reflected in the artwork by Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor, from his “Necrology” series focused on the lives of working-class people experiencing oppression.
The framed letterpress print on paper, titled “The Recounting of the events and experiences in the life of Yashir Khorshed,” features phrases in ornate typefaces, reminiscent of an advertisement. A mix of fact and fiction, some phrases were taken from 1860s obituaries, and some were written by Lum. The last line in this work, “dying from cancer due to benzene exposure” is about his mother, who was a garment worker.
As an adult Maravilla turned to music for healing as he went through treatment for cancer, and so he incorporates music as a call to meditation and recovery. The exhibition work “Disease Thrower #16” is centered around a gong. In composing the piece, Maravilla took a pilgrimage along the migration route he traveled as a child from El Salvador to the U.S. and collected objects that he incorporated into sculpture.
Zimmerman says she hopes visitors will “find moments of healing” as they consider the artworks. And, “as a counterbalance to some of the traumatic histories that are surfaced in the exhibition,” there will be a suite of programs centered on healing, including sessions on mindfulness and movement. “I hope for deep dialogue and an opportunity to sit with these histories,” she says.