ICA’s ‘Commonwealth’ showcases feminine power in revolutionary change 

The ICA’s newest exhibition, “Commonwealth” opened on Saturday, with timed ticket access to the public on Thursday. Photo by Jon Mirador

Claire Darcy, Contributing Writer

A female figure of water, whose aqueous skirts hold images of recent and historic protests, confronts those who reach the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets. The blue and white mural is one of many in the Institute for Contemporary Art’s new exhibition with a theme of feminine power as a force of revolutionary change. 

Created by Dominican artist Firelei Báez, the mural is titled “Moon minded the sun goes farther (to the Daughters of Revolutions, who could fly between the Artibonite and James River).” 

“Commonwealth” is a collaborative exhibition between the ICA, arts organization Philadelphia Contemporary and art institution Beta-Local in San Juan. It explores the various connotations of the term “commonwealth” and how they relate to each location, both in its history and potential. 

The exhibition delves into the connection between English and Spanish and how it affects the relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

Information and art labels in the gallery are provided in both languages. Throughout the fall season, Beta-Local and San Juan graphic design agency Tiguere Corp will release a bilingual print and digital publication related to the work. 

At the back of the ICA’s Beverly Reynolds Gallery is a two-channel film titled “Ricerche: two,” using the Italian word for “research.” The project by Sharon Hayes features interviews with two female tackle football teams. Members of both teams are huddled together on a field as they respond to Hayes’s questions. Two different angles of the same video are displayed simultaneously. 

Stephanie Smith, chief curator of the ICA, said the piece utilizes a “specially designed screen that curves in, both to help you feel more like you’re connected to that team, and also to give a little bit of the sense of the huddle.” 

In the video, players discuss their experiences with playing a sport that is traditionally understood to be masculine, both as individuals and teammates. With an emphasis on the female experience, strength and community, Hayes frequently works with political speech in her art.

“El Maestro 4,” organized by Puerto Rican artist and activist Nelson Rivera, represents the power of language with a music stand and megaphone. 

Attendees are challenged to read a Spanish script based on speeches made by Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican activist who was arrested for leading opposition movements against U.S. colonization during the mid-20th century.

Participants are asked to read a passage of text out loud as they see it for the first time — but they must be unfamiliar with the language.

“As a result, this non-native Spanish speaker will be focusing primarily on the musicality of the language. In order to get through it, you have to pay attention to each syllable,” said Noah Simblist, member of the “Commonwealth” curatorial team and chairperson in the VCUarts painting and printmaking department.

“El Maestro 4″ invites non-spanish speaking visitors to read from a speech from Puerto Rican activist Pedro Albizu Campos. Photo by Jon Mirador

The installation is open to the public, and performances are scheduled on an ongoing basis. The presentations last a few minutes, and some will be shared on the museum’s social media accounts.

During the press preview for “Commonwealth,” Emerson Tedder, lead visitor experience associate for the ICA, demonstrated a performance of “El Maestro 4.”

“Going into a public performance trying to speak a language you don’t know can be a little bit embarrassing, you know, but it’s fun, it’s part of the piece,” Tedder said. 

“Antilles for the Antilleans,” by Puerto Rican artist Monica Rodriguez, wraps around the building’s facade and incorporates fights for independence in the Caribbean islands. Drawings of monuments are paired with a quote by Puerto Rican independence advocate Ramón Emeterio Betances that reads in English on one side of the building and Spanish on the other. 

“Today the revolution proceeds, like a volcanic eruption, from the social strata that forms the very core of the people,” the quote reads. “Hoy la revolución procede, como una erupción volcánica, de las capas sociales que forman el mismo centro del pueblo.”

Simblist said the monuments featured in Rodriguez’s mural are different from those one might find in Richmond. 

“These are monuments to independence struggles,” Simblist said. “They’re about shrugging off the shackles of colonial rulers.”

Themes of strength and revolution compose the “Resiliency Garden,” created by food justice activist Duron Chavis and designer Quilian Riano. The garden features vegetables, fruit trees and flowers in raised garden beds alongside a multi-surface mural that reads “Black Space Matters” painted by artists Silly Genius and PT Carroll of All City Art Club.

“The space is designed for flexibility, for growth,” Riano said.

With outdoor, indoor and virtual pieces, “Commonwealth” can reach large audiences with its messages of community and revolutionary change. 

“Commonwealth” will be on display until Jan. 17. Timed tickets are available on the ICA website.

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