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Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), the nation’s first museum and art school, and the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP), the nation’s first municipal institution dedicated to the preservation and expression of Black history and heritage, form an unprecedented partnership to present Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America. This two-venue exhibition asks whether the sun is rising or setting on American democracy and 20 commissioned artists respond with installations in a diversity of styles, interpretations, and perspectives.
The overall result is compelling, thoughtful, and dynamic. Yet most of the works fall short of directly answering the title’s prompt, instead opting to address derivative themes or contemporary social issues. That is not to say the exhibition is unsuccessful—it well illustrates how the concept of American democracy remains ambiguous and amorphous, itself a work of artistic abstraction, a centuries-long performance piece in which we’ve all been cast(e) into roles by the limited imaginations of a small group of self-appointed patriarchs.
That sun behind the president
In 1787, Ben Franklin proclaimed, “I have often looked at that sun behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”
He is referring to the Rising Sun chair, in which George Washington sat during the Constitutional Convention. The chair, emblazoned with half of the sun carved in the crest rail, was a product of enslaved labor; and its occupant, the nation’s first president, was one of the most prominent enslavers of that time period. In fact, about a third of the delegates of the convention collectively enslaved several hundred people, which highlights the inherent dissonance that the country’s founding document, and American democracy itself, were built upon.
A replica of the chair is on view at PAFA and, alongside the Franklin quotation, it’s one of two exhibition anchors. The other is a lyric (“Facing the rising sun of our new day begun”) from James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice and Sing, now known as the Black national anthem. Recognizing The Star-Spangled Banner as an emblem of a patriotic ideology that did not consider, include, or represent them, Black Americans adopted their own, one that spoke to their struggles, striving, and ongoing resilience.
In dialogue with Audacious Freedom
While the permanent collection at PAFA was removed to allow the ornate architecture of its Historic Landmark Building and the installed Rising Sun pieces to shine, AAMP’s permanent display, Audacious Freedom: African Americans in Philadelphia 1776-1876, remains. This allows Rising Sun artists like Demetrius Oliver to create work directly responding to Audacious Freedom’s interactive timeline and video projections, inserting sculptural objects and editing and obscuring the current collection.
One of the first entries on the timeline is a rendering of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, now with the likenesses of enslaved people superimposed over the founding fathers. It makes visible a counternarrative to the propagated mythology of that historic moment. On the wall adjacent to this image, Hank Willis Thomas’s Question Bridge: Black Males, a three-hour, five-channel video installation of individual interview footage spliced together to create an ongoing dialogue, challenges the monolithic understanding of Black masculinity. Thomas’s mother, Deborah Willis, is also a featured artist. She offers a mixed-media installation, its name borrowing the line “Facing the rising sun” and including a short video of a dance performance and printed archival imagery of soldiers and other historical figures on wallpaper and chiffon.
The marching continues
Lift Every Voice and Sing goes on to say, “Let us march on till victory is won.” The marching has indeed continued, as in 2020, when millions of people around the world took to the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. John Akomfrah’s Triptych is a three-panel video installation documenting life in Bahia, Brazil, home to the world’s largest percentage of Afro-descendants of the slave trade. The film starkly cuts from the daily lives of these Brazilians to memorials of Taylor, her face painted on streets and signs alongside phrases and rallying cries like “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the police.”
At PAFA, a few installations also engage the idea of protest and resistance, particularly against current US militarism and colonialism. The work of Tiffany Chung charts the imprint and influence of the US military using embroidered and animated cartography to illustrate the concentration of bases, lily pads, hidden facilities, and more across the world. Her thorough research and scholarship particularly emphasize the US footprint in Africa and other locations that may be more opaque and impossible to hold accountable.
Through satirical video and photography, Iranian American artist and activist Sheida Soleimani illuminates the dangers of stereotypical depictions of Middle Eastern culture perpetuated by Western politics and media. In her work, the brown people are shown as bronze statues while politicians are seen as actors and performers.
Other takes on sunrise and sunset
Projected against the wall between the ramps connecting the second and third-floor galleries at AAMP, La Vaughn Belle’s Between the Dusk and Dawn (how to navigate an unsettled empire) more literally interprets the “rising sun” prompt by filming the sunrise in St. Croix and sunset in Guam. While these are the eastern and westernmost locations of the American empire, as US territories, their residents (including Belle herself) do not have the same protections, representation, resources, or rights as people in US states, demonstrating an unequal application of the tenets of democracy and citizenship.
Another take on sunrise and sunset is Eamon Ore-Giron’s large-scale geometric minimalist paintings Black Medallion XIV (Inti) and Black Medallion XV (Mama-Quilla), which reference the Incan sun and moon deities, with rich and concentrated tones of reds, blues, and purples against gold and black rays. They flank each side of PAFA’s grand staircase to the mezzanine.
Monuments to the marginalized
Reimagining the roles of monuments is another common Rising Sun approach. The Hygiea sculpture and built environment by Alison Saar (daughter of Black Arts Movement pioneer Betye Saar), dedicated to sanitation and domestic laborers, seems to be in conversation with Indigenous artist Rose B. Simpson’s Delegate sculpture, which represents the silencing of native sovereignty and representation in US politics. Each artist highlights crucial marginalized groups who are overlooked and taken for granted.
Wilmer Wilson IV, a Philly-based artist, uses posters, flyers, and other archival artifacts to elevate the sites where these items are commonly posted (kiosks, telephone posts, billboards) as larger-than-life tributes to our everyday lives. However, the most unlikely monument is a marble duck displayed outdoors on PAFA’s front plinth, the result of Lenka Clayton’s epic retelling of The True Story of a Stone, following a piece of stone across the red walls of the gallery space. Meanwhile at AAMP, Mark Thomas Gibson’s Their Failure is Our Reward acts almost as an anti-monument, an animatronic daisy dancing on the grave of a Klansman four times a day to a swelling cinematic soundtrack.
The truth about the sun—and us
Visiting both locations of Rising Sun in a single day requires astute planning and stamina. There is just so much to process and a lot of ground to cover between the two institutions, as well as the 15-minute trek through Chinatown between them. Consider also the order of the visit: the content and themes of the work at AAMP are a bit heavier and more historically based, whereas the PAFA portion offers more of an interpretive, contemporary selection.
Ultimately, I’m not sure Rising Sun asks the right question. It is our positionality that makes us believe the sun rises or sets, when it actually does neither. The sun is steady, remaining unmoved in space, while we on Earth are the ones constantly revolving around it. By focusing our attention on the sun, we avert our eyes from what we are unwilling to face about ourselves and what is hidden in our shadows. But as a country in continuous and compounding crises, we can no longer afford to look away. Are we ready to look at ourselves and tell the truth? Rising Sun offers plenty to see and reflect upon, and a place to start the conversation.
What, When, Where
Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America. Through December 31, 2023, at PAFA, 118-128 North Broad Street, and through March 3, 2024 at AAMP, 701 Arch Street, Philadelphia. $25 for special joint tickets; $10 for youth and children. risingsunphilly.org.
PAFA and AAMP are wheelchair-accessible venues.
Masks are optional at PAFA and required at AAMP.
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