Turning trash into beauty at North Philly’s Village of Arts

Visiting Nigerian artist Olanrewaju Tejuoso worked with the community to create a colorful new show.

The Village of Arts and Humanities

On one of the first days after arriving for his residency at Fairhill’s Village of Arts and Humanities, Nigerian artist Olanrewaju Tejuoso was walking around the neighborhood with program manager Lillian Dunn when they stumbled upon a candle inside of a mug.

Dunn explained that to him that it was a kind of makeshift memorial. “This is something that you do when someone that you love dies. You light candles in order to remember them,” Tejuoso recalls learning. “When I heard that, it was weird, but I later thought that I could use it as a theme for my project.

Tejuoso is one of two creatives participating in the third annual edition of SPACES International AIR, a visiting artists’ residency hosted by the Village, which was founded nearly 50 years ago with the mission “to support the voices and aspirations of the community through providing opportunities for self-expression rooted in art and culture.” Specifically, the SPACES program focuses on creating and maintaining collaboration between visiting artists and community members.

So for the past nine months, Tejuoso has involved aspiring artists from the neighborhood in the creation of an installation that explores the concept of losing a loved one through the reuse of discarded materials. Called Material Memory, the show runs through Jan. 28.

The items used in the installation all had a prior purpose, Tejuoso explains, and although that purpose is now just a memory, turning them into art breathes new life into them.

“After someone regards them as trash, that is when it becomes interesting to me,” he says. “Picking them, washing them, sculpting them, and later installing them into something people can see as beautiful. That is what my project is all about.”

Using empty chip bags, plastic bags, cardboard, chocolate coin wrappers and other discarded items, Tejuoso and his team crafted a giant-sized barcode that acts as a reflection on consumerism and waste. Another facet of the installation turned scraps of fabrics donated by Philly-based garment companies like Anthropologie and Plume and Thread into dozens of doughnut-like cushions. According to Tejuoso, in Nigeria cushions like these are used by laborers when carrying large loads on their heads, and his rendition is a tribute them and other across the world who are being paid “peanuts” for their work.

“I didn’t think he would be able to make a big project out of trash,” said Stanley Ward, an artist from the community who worked with Tejuoso. “He turned it into something unbelievable.”

Grimaldi Baez is an installation artist who has been working with The Village since last March to help facilitate artistic endeavors like the SPACES program. One of Baez’ main roles in Memory/Loss was to help organize the community artist in a way that was most effective to Tejuoso’s work.

Many of Tejuoso’s pieces involved hand-knotting yards and yards of fabric. The repetitive task was made interesting by doing it in “sewing circles,” where the team engaged in roundtable discussions regarding artistry, community and different aspects of society such as prison life as they worked with the cloth. The candid talks helped everyone involved to develop a love and respect for one another, and that, in turn, is represented in the work.

“These knots kind of became a record of our time together,” Baez said. “Literally a memory or moment of that time.”

Community members felt the project created a sense of togetherness that was previously lacking.

“The most rewarding part was getting to know everybody,” said community artist Sherita Dill. “Just because we live in the same community we wasn’t really familiar with everybody. But now we know more about each other then before.”

This particular section of North Philadelphia, the 2500-block of Germantown Avenue, has unemployment rates that are some of the highest in the city, but community artists who participated in the SPACES project were paid $11 an hour.

The Village of Arts and Humanities began life as the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center, founded in 1968 by Philadelphian Arthur Hall with the purpose of being a hub where community members could come together to paint, make music and dance.Today, the Village is also home to PhillyEarth (an urban farm), CRED Magazine and various creative after-school programs

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