An all-American sculptural showcase

National Liberty Museum presents In Pursuit: Artists’ Perspectives on a Nation

4 minute read
A triptych piece within a wooden frame has hands of different skin tones reaching and interacting, two in the center touching
‘The Dichotomy’ by Arghavan Khosravi, on view at the National Liberty Museum. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

The US became a democracy in Philadelphia, and we’re fortunate to have so many historic landmarks here. However, the nation’s origin story was told by and about the white men with power and agency at the time. So far, efforts to make exhibits more inclusive at sites like the Liberty Bell are unsatisfying. If you’re looking for civil discourse about civics in America today, you’ll find it at the National Liberty Museum (NLM), which offers consistently thoughtful and engaging programs and exhibitions.

In Pursuit: Artists’ Perspectives on a Nation, up through Monday, October 28, 2024, illuminates diverse viewpoints on America beyond its birth and Congressional baby steps. Seven distinguished artists, including some who have shown in Philadelphia before, were invited to create installations about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by guest curators Leslie Kaufman and Elaine Crivelli, the president and vice president of Philadelphia Sculptors.

Personal danger, universal precarity

Among the artists’ themes are personal danger and universal precarity as a result of gun violence, racism, US foreign policy, and the odyssey of refugees. From Anila Quayyum Agha’s This Is Not A Refuge on the first floor, to Nicholas Galanin’s Neon American Anthem (Blue) on the third floor, each installation invites visitors into a different—yet American—world.

Pakistani American Quayyum Agha’s This Is Not A Refuge is a laser-cut aluminum shelter lit from within; projected light spills flowery shapes on the yellow walls and white ceiling. It’s not much of a shelter because there’s no way to get inside, but that’s the point. The paradoxical nature of Quayyum Agha’s work is exquisitely balanced, as were the opposing meanings in her Charred Gold, a standout at the Museum for Art in Wood’s The Mashrabiya Project: Seeing through Space.

Throughout the museum, wall texts warn visitors that “you may hear screaming” from the third floor, where participatory artwork is installed. Intermittent screams echoed through the building on my visit, mostly from middle-school groups.

Oasis, monument, pursuit, interrogation

Iranian-born Arghavan Khosravi, who lives and works in Connecticut, shows sculptural paintings, The Dichotomy, The Red Carpet (A Massacre), and The Flight. Their overall loveliness and small scenes painted in the style of Persian miniatures add pathos to the theme of anguish under repression. Nearby, Artur Silva’s All Threats Came in Waves appears to be a green oasis. Sleek mannequins in contorted yoga positions sport grassy camouflage against a lush background. Meanwhile, photographs and videos document the US government’s role in the military coup against Brazil’s president in 1964. Silva, based in Indiana, grew up in Brazil during the resulting dictatorship; Brazilians didn’t regain the vote until 1985.

Cabrales, at center, stands between two large TV screens with animated images. A board game about 4 feet square is in front.
Angel Cabrales poses with his ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ at the National Liberty Museum. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

Parts of the museum’s third floor are being renovated, complementing Marisa Williamson’s sprawling, organic Seedbed V.Seedbed V is a ruin,” Williamson states in wall text, but also a monument, part of her creative investigations about Sally Hemings. An assistant professor of visual art at the University of Virginia with a research focus on Blackness, Williamson has shown iterations of Seedbed in Philadelphia before, most recently at the Print Center.

El Paso-based Angel Cabrales’s The Pursuit of Happiness: A Venture in Migration offers videos, an elaborate board game, and a wall sculpture. One video takes viewers on a drive along a border wall. A brilliant wall sculpture, Five Lights, refers to interrogation scenes; huddled beneath it are artifacts in vitrines left behind by deported refugees: folded certificates, a rolled belt, photographs of children.

An unforgettable show

Aram Han Sifuentes’s works are meditations on gun violence. Memorial to Gun Violence: An AR-15 was Destroyed to Make This For You was created with pigments made from a dissolved AR-15. Dyed cloth panels hang in a circle viewers can enter, which feels risky even though we can see inside. Han Sifuentes, a Korean American who lives in Chicago, created Messages to Our Neighbors for Mural Arts in 2021.

Around a corner, Galanin’s devastating Neon American Anthem (Blue) is revealed, and visitors can scream if they like. With this work, Galanin, a Tlingít and Unangax̂ Native Alaskan who lives and works in Sitka, responds to the loss of lives, freedom, and safety. Do the groups of children grasp the meaning of this breathtaking artwork before happily shrieking? Maybe not, but they may think about it later. Most visitors will find at least a few of the installations deeply moving in this unforgettable show.

In-person and virtual programs will explore issues raised by the artworks; visit NLM’s events page for details.

What, When, Where

In Pursuit: Artists’ Perspectives on a Nation. Through October 28, 2024, at National Liberty Museum, 321 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 925-2800 or


The National Liberty Museum is a fully wheelchair-accessible facility. Call (215) 925-2800 with questions or for additional needs.

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