Extraordinary questions

The Philadelphia Art Alliance presents Nyeema Morgan’s Like It Is

3 minute read
A small paper collage that cuts and splits two copies of the “Extraordinary Togetherness” title page into dynamic angles.
A study for Nyeema Morgan’s ‘Like It Is.’ (Image courtesy of the artist.)

Ever look at a familiar word and suddenly not recognize it? Or thought about how words and their meaning change—evolving, shifting, cycling in and out of usage? For Nyeema Morgan, these fleeting thoughts are the beginning of art. Drawings and collages by Morgan, a multimedia Philadelphia-born artist, are featured at the Philadelphia Art Alliance (PAA) at University of the Arts.

“At the beginning of every work, there’s a question, and I feel as though the work allows me to work my way through these questions and explore them through the visual language,” she explained in 2016. “I like that interplay between the abstract and the representational.”

Extraordinary lengths

Take the word "extraordinary." Morgan noticed it, then started looking for it, curious about its usage. Her exploration resulted in the ongoing series Like It Is, which fills two first-floor galleries in the Philadelphia Art Alliance, a 1906 Italian palazzo built for Samuel Price Wetherill, father of PAA founder Christine Wetherill Stevenson. (Philadelphia Art Alliance merged with University of the Arts in 2018.)

For Like it Is, Morgan sought out books with "extraordinary" in the title.

Making multiple copies of title pages, she dissected them, tearing, scissoring, obscuring, and positioning the pieces into collages as she pondered how "extraordinary"—or any abstract combination of letters—becomes a visual representation of experience. Persuading viewers to see words as objects as well as concepts, Morgan reveals the arbitrariness of meaning, leading to the recognition that words are as malleable as the air through which they travel or the paper on which they are printed.

A word’s meaning depends on sender and receiver, time and place; what appears on the page, as Morgan’s art shows, can evoke in readers impressions far beyond what authors, typographers, and printers imagine.

Showing her work

Morgan’s finished piece Like It Is: Extraordinary Togetherness (2021) is the focus in the first gallery. For it, she duplicated the title page of a book entitled Extraordinary Togetherness; The copies became grist for her meditation. Tablet-sized collages, studies for the finished work, ring the room, leading viewers through the creative process that culminated in the large graphite drawing on the fireplace mantel.

A white art gallery with elegant molding at floor and ceiling, and wood floors. It has black-and-white graphite art works.
A gallery view of ‘Like It Is’ at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. (Image courtesy of the artist and Philadelphia Art Alliance at University of the Arts.)

In the studies, the words fracture and fragment, blur and slide, flip and shift. They seem to move of their own volition, holding the visual field, then ceding space to voids colored gray, black, and camouflage green. In some, extraneous elements dart through: a track mark here, a Strand price tag there. Consistently, the primary words, or parts of them, are visible: "extraordinary" in graceful script, "togetherness" in understated capitals.

Morgan’s resulting graphite-on-paper drawing provides the most complete view of the page, albeit upside-down and askew. For the first time, title and subtitle are visible: Extraordinary Togetherness, Love Sex and Intimacy. Below that, a few illegible lines, followed by the word "prevention," in capitals. At the bottom of the frame, a shadowy image of posts in a line, like a picket fence or bed frame. Is the text verbatim or the artist’s commentary? And what does the image mean? The only certain conclusion is that Morgan’s aim was more than portraiture.

More extraordinary works

Finished works from Like It Is continue in the second gallery, including Like It Is: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, No. 2 (2016). In addition to its prescience, this piece is noteworthy in two ways. It’s the only work on view depicting an entire title page, complete with author, publisher, and illustration information, and the image is precisely plumb.

In Like It Is: Extraordinary Women (2016), it seems that someone tried to tear the page from its binding. The title is followed by a few lines of Lorem Ipsum, Latin placeholder text used by graphic designers in page composition. To most people, Lorem Ipsum is meant to look like gibberish, and though it’s diverting to inspect text one isn’t meant to understand, don’t miss the faint silhouette stealing across the bottom of Extraordinary Women. Look closely: it’s the woman whose extraordinary curiosity brought this exhibition into being.

What, When, Where

Like It Is. By Nyeema Morgan. Through October 8, 2021, at the Philadelphia Art Alliance at University of the Arts, 251 S. 18th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 545-4302 or UArts.edu/centers/artalliance.

Visitors to The Philadelphia Art Alliance must be fully vaccinated. Masks are required in the galleries.


The Philadelphia Art Alliance is a historic building with limited accessibility. At present, there is no wheelchair access, and the entrance and interior floors are only accessible by stairs. The University of the Arts is currently raising funds to bring the venue into compliance with ADA guidelines and make it more accessible to guests. Accessibility questions can be directed to [email protected].

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