Philly Block Project photo exhibition captures Kensington

Residents of N. 3rd Street in South Kensington. (Photos by Hank Willis Thomas and Wyatt Gallery)

The Philly Block Project is going out with a bang with The Block Exhibition, a photography exhibit showcasing the year-long project.

The Philly Block Project was launched in the beginning of 2016 by the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC), with the goal of bringing to light inspiring stories from Philadelphia’s South Kensington neighborhood. Throughout the year, The Philly Block Project has been working with community members to create a visual history and representation of the neighborhood. Residents came together to share personal stories, bonding over shared experiences and spaces. These stories served as the inspiration for Block artists throughout the year.

According to the PPAC executive director Sarah Stolfa, “Through the Philly Block Project, PPAC has worked to build bridges with, and between, South Kensington’s residents.”

Perhaps the best example of this is the Meadows Arts Park, a once-vacant lot that local residents turned into a park. The space, a tangible representation of what communities can do through the power of art, now hosts a series of concerts, workshops, and film screenings, every Wednesday through November 30, 2016, from 6:00-7:30pm.

Installing South Kensington at PPAC

As the year — and the project — draws to a close, The Block Exhibit seeks to commemorate the community-building experience that the Philly Block Project has been. The exhibit is a reconstruction of the physical space of South Kensington using 500 photographs of the neighborhood’s residents. It starts with floor-to-ceiling images that create a block of homes. Additionally, smaller portraits feature old and young residents doing everything from relaxing in lawn chairs to playing on the sidewalks. Overhead, a banner reading “Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee” represents their commitment to keeping South Kensington safe and beautiful. The exhibition as a whole is meant to symbolize the walls that have been broken through by the Philly Block Project, Stolfa says.

Lead artist Hank Willis Thomas and collaborator Wyatt Gallery, along with participating photographers, shot over 10,000 photographs to create the exhibit. “We went through an extensive editing process, and then started laying out the images on pieces of paper in the shape of each wall,” Thomas says. “We went over it again and again until we were satisfied.”

“We were inspired by the masonry that went into building almost all the houses on the blocks,” he adds of the creative process. “We were thinking about how each member of the community is like a building block. We wanted to create an immersive experience for the viewer, one that suggested that there were infinite stories to tell.”

Real beauty and importance

As a narrative device, the photo exhibit is, in a way, a historic landmark — a testament to the beauty and camaraderie that characterizes the South Kensington neighborhood. Visitors will be able to get a glimpse into the intimate lives of its residents, an opportunity that is rare, to say the least.  

“My only hope is that people like it, and want to come see it more than once, and that they bring new people,” says Thomas. “I also hope that people realize that you don't have to be rich, famous, or powerful to be seen as beautiful and as an important part of history.”

The Block Exhibition will be open until November 25, 2016, at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center on 1400 N. American Street.