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Wanderlust: Penn graduate students curate "Itinerant Belongings"

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Wanderlust: Penn graduate students curate "Itinerant Belongings"

By Roksana Filipowska

What does it mean to “belong” when national, social, and economic boundaries keep shifting? What happens to those who fall outside of such boundaries or find themselves caught between two conflicting ones? Itinerant Belongings, an exhibition opening on Saturday, November 1, features contemporary artists whose works foreground those who are usually unaccounted for by national or legal systems and established social orders — an omission often rendering such individuals simultaneously placeless and disposable.

Presented at Slought and the University of Pennsylvania’s Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery, Itinerant Belongings comprises an impressive lineup of international artists working in film, photography, and performance. Yael Bartana, an Israeli video artist who lives and works in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Tel Aviv, has exhibited at venues including PS1 in New York and such festivals as Documenta 12 and the 2011 Venice Biennale; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a leading filmmaker in global art cinema, won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. Inspired by critical debates about art and activism in the 1980s and 1990s, Itinerant Belongings revisits earlier works by artists who continue to examine and critique existing notions of homeland. William Pope.L, professor at the University of Chicago, has used performance and interventionist public art since the late 1970s to interrogate the system of values projected onto individuals and groups based on their gender, race, and class; Krzysztof Wodiczko, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, began questioning what constitutes “public” space through the introduction of large-scale video projections on public building facades during the 1980s. The exhibition also features work by photographer Andrew Moore, PennDesign alumni Jamie Diamond and Jessica Vaughn, as well as Philadelphia-based artist Paul Salveson.

    • Yael Bartana
    • Yael Bartana, still from Trembling Time (detail), 2001. Courtesy the artist.

    • Jamie Diamond
    • Jamie Diamond, The Seasons, 2007. Courtesy the artist.

    • Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    • Apichatpong Weerasethakul, still from Haunted Houses (detail), 2001, Courtesy Kick the Machine.

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    • Paul Salveson, image from Between the Shell, 2013.

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Iggy Cortez and Charlotte Ickes, two PhD candidates in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the possibility of organizing a show at the University of Pennsylvania three-years ago developing proposals and applications that were accepted this Fall. Cortez and Ickes’s collaboration emerged from their shared engagement with issues of homelessness and dislocation in their respective scholarship: Cortez, a member of Penn’s Cinema Studies Program writes on global cinema and contemporary art; Ickes, who completed the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program, works on contemporary art and film with a focus on blackness and the African diaspora.

    • Charlotte and Iggy
    • Charlotte Ickes and Iggy Cortez.

Given the coursework and dissertation requirements of a PhD program, it is rare that graduate students are able to find the time and resources to curate their own exhibitions. Realizing Itinerant Belongings therefore speaks to Cortez and Ickes’s drive and ingenuity. When asked how they were able to feature artists of such caliber, Ickes replies: “Iggy and I made a list of the artists we were interested in including in the show. We drafted a curatorial pitch, and we were thrilled that they all agreed.”

Noting that issues of displacement and uprooting are not exclusive to a single discipline, Cortez and Ickes worked with the School of Arts and Sciences, PennDesign, and Slought to realize Itinerant Belongings. “We wanted our exhibition to resonate across disciplines, and we are incredibly pleased that it has been cosponsored by so many different departments, from Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Religious Studies, Annenberg School of Communication, The School of Social Policy and Practice, and many more,” states Cortez.  

In addition to the exhibition, Cortez and Ickes are organizing several public programs where visitors can discuss ideas of home and belonging. On Thursday, November 20, Bartana will give a lecture and participate in a conversation with Nora M. Alter, Professor in the Department of Film and Media at Temple University, at the Institute of Contemporary Art. On Wednesday, November 5th, Slought will host a screening of Louis Massiah’s The Bombing of Osage Avenue, a 1986 documentary focusing on the Philadelphia Police Department’s bombing of MOVE, a black liberation group, on May 13, 1985. Ickes observes: “It’s an incredibly powerful documentary that was made only a year after the bombing. The film offers an interesting lens to talk not only about West Philadelphia but also recent events related to national and international police violence.” This event will include a conversation between Penn History of Art professor Karen Beckman; Massiah, who is also the founder and executive director of the Scribe Video Center; and artist Vaughn, who cites the 1985 bombing as influential to her work.

In addition to the official programming, Ickes and Cortez are reaching out to arts-oriented undergraduate students at Penn. “We are also organizing a series of specialized tours and conversations for undergraduates,” Cortez nods. “Enhancing accessibility was key to our mission so we wanted to create events where undergraduates can feel comfortable engaging and responding to the work.” 

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The opening of Itinerant Belongings coincides with another related event during Penn’s Homecoming Weekend: “Jaffe@20/Art History@55,” an anniversary celebration of the University of Pennsylvania’s History of Art department. This year, the event includes a panel titled “Art History Matters,” where Penn alumni and guests can discuss the significance of art historical thought and research within today’s image-saturated culture. At a time when universities are experiencing pressure to justify the very existence of their humanities programs, Itinerant Belongings and “Jaffe@20/Art History@55,” make a strong case for the importance of critical scholarship, as well as curatorial and artistic practice. According to Cortez and Ickes, artistic practice can gesture towards alternative social configurations that reimagine — and transform — existing political structures. Writing about Itinerant Belongings, the curators state: “The artists in the exhibition advance multiple modes of sociality and belonging where we might least expect to find them: in the uprooted, the displaced, the uncertain, the errant, the itinerant.”

Itinerant Belongings is on display from November 1 until December 20 at Slought, located at 4017 Walnut Street, and at Addams Fine Arts Hall of the University of Pennsylvania from November 1 until November 22. For more information on the exhibition and its public programs, please visit:

Photos from the exhibition walkthrough and opening reception:

(View the full set on Flickr)

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Roksana Filipowska is a PhD student in the Department of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania and a Spotlight Lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke