Sunday, June 27, 2010
Personal Renaissance at Dilworth Plaza
What can one say about Dilworth Plaza? That it is a hobo hangout? A gaping pit in front of City Hall? A place that is only really loved, or at least used, by people who are marginalized in our society? It is a bizarre and liminal space filled with neglected crannies, where one passes from an underground labyrinth of SEPTA tunnels, to the surface of the city. In the two and a half years that I worked in Center City I walked through and around City Hall often, so it was with great interest that I investigated Mustafa Abdulaziz’s Personal Renaissance, a project that aims to make something more out of the space. The title has resonance with the plaza, and the architectural revival project which has been proposed for it by the Center City District. But, does the placement of the photography do it proper service?
Personal Renaissance is a convergence of several programs, headed by the Mural Arts Program under the subsidiary banner of the Porch Light Initiative, which is a partnership between MAP and the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health. The portrait sitters are recovering addicts at the Act II Center of the JEVS Human Services facility in Kensington. Photographs are paired with poetry they have written as an exercise in personal growth as part of their recovery process. Abdulaziz has documented them as they participate in the creation of a new mural for MAP, also to be named Personal Renaissance. They are confident, affecting, and beautiful portraits (the triptych is particularly dynamic) which demand pause and the viewer’s undivided attention—attention which I believe will not be paid properly by most of those who pass through the plaza.
Chugging ahead without regard for surroundings is part of an everyday commute mindset. One could go so far as to say that it is a survival technique, an emotional shield, for getting through daily life. How often do we ignore or not even register what is directly in front of us? It’s always easiest to get past someone panhandling for money if you avoid eye-contact in the first place, avoiding that trigger of guilt. For this reason, I wonder whether the installation of Abdulaziz’s photographs is successful, though the intention is honorable. The portraits contain a natural luminosity, which is probably why I kept thinking of what they would look like mounted on lightboxes. Could they gain more attention if this was the case? But even then, just like backlit advertising in public transit corridors, we train ourselves to filter out extraneous messages that we see so repeatedly. I was the odd man out in looking at these photos; for everyone else, they seemed to be background noise.