Preview: Upcoming ICA exhibit to explore concept of commonwealth

Created by Dominican artist Firelei Báez, this billboard stands as part of the “Resiliency Garden” at the ICA. The design overlays new imagery on historical maps and architectural renderings from Philadelphia and Richmond. Photo by Jon Mirador

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

In the wake of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, “Commonwealth,” the newest exhibition coming to the Institute for Contemporary Art this weekend, notes relevant themes of activism, community and resilience portrayed through sculptures, video and large-scale murals. 

The gallery is a collaborative effort between the ICA, non-profit organization Beta-Local in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Philadelphia Contemporary. Each of these are within areas designated as commonwealths.

“Commonwealth” will be presented in both indoor and outdoor formats. Mediums include a garden, large-scale outdoor murals, sculptures and videos. 

The murals are currently available for viewing, and are located on the museum’s exterior “Thinking Field” wall, which faces North Pine Street. 

“Commonwealth” has been in the works since 2018. In spring 2019, an undergraduate course about the exhibition’s subject was offered by the VCUarts painting and printmaking department in collaboration with the museum. The course led to a series of public discussion sessions. 

The “Resiliency Garden,” by food justice activist Duron Chavis, addresses issues of social justice and food insecurity. Photo by Jon Mirador

“Each of the collaborating institutions felt it was important to have a community-based process of exploring ideas related to commonwealth with people around them,” said Stephanie Smith, chief curator of the ICA. 

The project explores the idea of “commonwealth” as a political territory, its further community-based implications and its historical significance to each locality. It also examines the possibilities and limitations to the term. According to the ICA’s website, it seeks to address questions such as “Who is the ‘we’ in ‘We the people?’” and “How could we reimagine wealth and come together for common good?”

Smith said the project was a chance to think more closely about the range of meanings that the term can have, from its “utopian possibilities” to its “historical roots.”

Themes and topics of the exhibit include natural resources, the built environment, assembly, public domain and the line between common wealth and common debt. 

“For the show, we didn’t say to an artist ‘work with this theme,’ but we talked through this range of research and they came up with their own ways of addressing it,” said Noah Simblist, chair of painting and printmaking at VCUarts and a member of the “Commonwealth” curatorial team. 

Many themes discussed by the production team and artists, such as the connection between wealth and health, evolved as time progressed throughout the project. 

“History is unfolding in real time, and we as a group are being very mindful of how those current events affected the way we’re thinking through the project,” Simblist said.

One of these changes was the “Resiliency Garden” by artist and food justice activist Duron Chavis, which was not originally planned to be part of the museum’s exhibit. It came into motion in the wake of COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement to highlight the ties between systemic racism and food insecurity.

The “Resiliency Garden” includes mural made by local and international artists. The “Black Spaces Matter” mural was created by artists Silly Genius and PT Carroll. Photo by Jon Mirador

The garden will be one of the exhibit’s outdoor components and will feature several raised planters, a variety of vegetables and other plants, and a multi-surface mural. 

Working on the project through COVID-19 meant several changes to the original plan for “Commonwealth.” Although it was supposed to launch in a traditional format in all three collaborating locations, the ICA will be the sole site for a physical exhibit. Online programs and print publications will be produced in Philadelphia and San Juan. 

“It was not so much changing the end date, but changing how we got there,” Simblist said.

The coronavirus also shifted how the art will be presented. The ICA adapted its planned live performances to a film format and added floor space between art installations to allow for social distancing. 

“Commonwealth” will be on display at the ICA, 601 W. Broad St., from Sept. 12 to Jan. 17. 

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