A pop-up art exhibition celebrates the critical eye of revolution

Revolutionary curator Conrad Benner. (Photo by M. Fischetti for VISIT PHILADELPHIA®.)

How did Conrad Benner, founder and editor of Philly’s raging street art photo blog streetsdept.com, do something red, white, blue, and Philly, and not make it corny? It’s thanks in part to the reach of VISIT PHILADELPHIA and its desire to go beyond colonial period pieces.

“What we did instead is interpret the spirit of revolution,” says Benner, the curator of Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition, running throughout Philly’s Historic District May 24 through July 4. “Big or small, from the American Revolution to the civil rights movement to the fight for marriage equality, what all revolutions have in common are people looking at the world around them with a critical eye.”

This exhibition of art in public spaces coincides with the opening of the new Museum of the American Revolution, and it’s part of VISIT PHILADELPHIA’s Historic District campaign. For Benner, this partnership (sparked last year) has marked a major moment in turning six years of his passion on the blog into his career.

Cornbread, the “birth lottery,” women for social justice, and more

Though no more of a history buff than many other Philadelphians who’ve lived in the city their whole lives, Benner does beam over the fact that the modern-day graffiti movement got its start here, with graffiti writer Darryl “Cornbread” McCrae in the ‘60s.

Revolutionary doesn’t stop or start with Cornbread per se, but radiates from that early tagging street-art ambition Benner admires. He chose local artists who used their art to challenge the political and social status quo, like Michelle Angela Ortiz’s portrait of a Philadelphia man who experienced a yearlong struggle with ICE and almost got deported, and now lives in fear in what was once for him a city of hope. Or Lisa Kelley’s weavings, which connect the struggles, the despair, and the stories of hope surrounding addiction and the opioid epidemic that’s sweeping large sections of our city and the country. And there’s Yasmine Mustafa and Monica O’s collaborative poster about privilege and the “birth lottery,” the idea that we can’t choose the circumstances we’re born into, so why not work to recognize this and engage each other with more empathy? 

Many of the Founding Fathers had misogynistic or slave-owning pasts, and Benner’s curation refuses to shy away from that: Painter Shawn Theodore addresses the history of American slavery directly with Reminder, his installation at Elfreth’s Alley.

Joe Boruchow’s Transition 3​ depicts people going about their days while ignoring large ringing alarm bells hung right above their heads. Benner hopes that this piece, which will be installed at Spruce Street Harbor Park, will remind viewers not to “normalize or ignore big warning signs,” even during downtime.  

Zoë Cohen’s Shkoyach​ will live in the lobby of the National Museum of American Jewish History. For this piece, the artist walked through the museum and collected some of the images on view of Jewish women engaged in social-justice work across 100 years of American history, and then went on to research images of black, Latina, and Asian women also taking public actions like strikes, protests, and organizing meetings.

The resulting watercolor portraits (projected onsite) “are intended to offer a personal and humanizing response to the extraordinary and ordinary heroism of these women.”

Beauty in the array

With 13 artists in 13 locations working in disciplines like photography, sculpture, projection, yarn-bombing, and more, there can and should be no single feel to Revolutionary.  “The exhibition's visual connection comes from its array of texture, scale, color, and content,” Benner says. “I find beauty in that array. As far as vibe, I want the juxtaposition of contemporary art with social and political themes over historic place and architecture to pull a thread through history to the hopes and challenges of our present day.”

Revolutionary: A Pop-Up Street Art Exhibition runs May 25 through July 4 across Philadelphia’s Historic District at sites including the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Franklin Square, FringeArts, the Arden, the Betsy Ross House, and many more. Look for maps printed and placed through these neighborhoods or online