This fall, if you look past the statue of Frank Rizzo standing guard in front of Philly’s Municipal Services Building, you’ll catch a glimpse of a poster featuring a giant American flag.
The poster is not an invitation to an Army recruitment meeting, nor one that urges you to vote in the next election. It’s not in defense of the Rizzo statue at all. Instead, it’s an image of the flag wrapped around a teenage girl from Uzbekistan, who’s drawing the cloth around her like a red-white-and-blue security blanket while looking pensively at its stars and stripes.
Next to the girl is a word, standing out in bright scarlet against an azure background: “America.”
Twenty-five other posters featuring different words wrap around all sides of the glass facade of the MSB. There’s one for each letter, A through Z. From now through the end of the year, the hulking structure at the center of one of the most trafficked pedestrian intersections in the city has been transformed into an open-air art gallery, hosting an installation intended to raise awareness of what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. The installation also happens to be right behind the controversial statue of Philly’s former mayor just as calls to remove it have renewed.
Called “Immigrant Alphabet,” the art show is a collaboration between nationally-renowned photographer Wendy Ewald and 18 students from Northeast High School, all of whom are either immigrants or refugees themselves, or have parents who are.
“If you look at these pictures, they have deep messages inside them,” said Rushana Nasimova, a 20-year-old political refugee who arrived in Philly in 2015 and graduated from Northeast High last June. “We picked each word carefully.”
Coordinated by local community arts organization Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture and majority funded by a Knight Cities grant, the project took place over the course of four weeks. Students, who were self-selected to participate, spent up to two periods a day meeting with Ewald and working on the final images. Collaboratively, they chose which word to use to represent each letter, and then split into groups to determine what image would go along with it. They brought in props, posed for photos and sketched the words to be overlaid over top.
Nasimova is featured in the poster for L, which features the word “Leave.” So far, it’s been the defining characteristic of her life. “It’s not just leaving a place,” she said. “It’s leaving a good life, friends, people you know, things you love.”
Now a freshman at Temple, Nasimova left her native Tajikistan as a young child alongside her mother, a journalist who had dared write articles criticizing that Balkan state’s Farsi government even though she was both Muslim and female. The family fled to Russia and stayed until their whereabouts were discovered and they were forced to leave. Turkey was next, but it was not safe — “We were being followed by police, I saw them,” Nasimova said — and so they had to leave again. There was then a harrowing six-hour layover in an airport in Germany, before they left one more country and eventually found sanctuary in the United States.
For Doha Salah, a 19-year-old who was born in Iraq but moved to Syria when she was four to escape the civil war, it’s the T word — “Trust” — that most represents her immigration experience. “When we first came to the U.S. we didn’t know anyone, so we had to trust our case worker,” she explained.
Saleh and her family were first settled in Kentucky, where, with little English and no other Arabic-speaking people in the community, she felt extremely out of place. “I had a friend, kind of, but it was hard to communicate. It was broken language on both sides,” she said. “We had to trust each other.” Making friends got easier when the family was moved to Philadelphia, and there were other Arabic speakers around.
But now, Saleh, a freshman at CCP, has several friends who don’t speak Arabic — some of whom she met via the Immigrant Alphabet project.
“What was amazing,” said Ewald, the photographer, “was that from the beginning they were open with each other, telling each other their stories. Once one person told their story everyone did. They got very interested in each other.”
Jenny Lim is one of Salah’s new friends. Born in Queens, Lim is not an immigrant herself, but both her parents are from China, and speak very little English. The project helped her get to know them better, she said. “We usually just keep to ourselves — we never even eat dinner together, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a ‘family dinner.’ There was so much more to learn about my family than I knew.”
Lim is featured in the poster for S — “Stereotype” — posing as the typical smarty-pants Asian student, with glasses and a statistics textbook. But while Lim was at the top of her class throughout Northeast High, and graduated with honors, she’s actually decided to leave the stereotypical path and become an art education major at Temple. “I always thought maybe I would be a mathematician, my dad is an accountant. But then I took an art class around two years ago and fell in love with it.”
Lim’s experience with Immigrant Alphabet especially inspired her. “I would call this community art — socially engaged art that’s political. I want to keep doing that,” she said. “Maybe with Mural Arts.”
The prevalence of public art in Philadelphia is notable compared to other cities, observed Ewald, who has participated in projects with high school students before — including one in 2003 in NYC that inspired the founder of Al-Bustan to make this one happen — and had many outdoor shows around the world. She’s never before done anything in Philly, but now has one right in the center of the city.
“The idea of immigration and refugees is under fire in this country,” she said. “I wanted to do something that addresses it in a way that’s human and deep. [The Immigrant Alphabet] is meant to move people to understand and want to know more about immigration in this country and try to feel what it’s like to be an immigrant.”
Al-Bustan representatives estimated that upwards of 1,000 people an hour probably walk by the MSB (a study will try to determine a more exact number soon), and the posters already appear to be having their intended effect.
Last week as workers were installing the giant photos on the glass, many passers-by did double takes, and several paused to stare more intently, standing beneath each one for several minutes and pointing things out to friends. A curious municipal worker stopped to talk with organizers, and before he rushed upstairs to a meeting he signed up to volunteer to help out with the other facets of the project, which will include interactive displays and floor decals in Thomas Paine Plaza, plus a series of postcards with gripping stats about the immigrant experience.
“I really like this location,” said Lim. “The thing about Center City is that it’s really diverse. People who walk by here are teenagers, homeless people, businessmen. Every age group and every race.”
She compared the potential impact of having the Immigrant Alphabet hang on MSB to an advertising billboard. “Even if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking at in these posters, it will raise more awareness of the topic in general,” she said, “whether people like it or not.”