Velvet Glove
Velvet Glove

2017's Top Social Commentary Exhibitions in Philadelphia

By Matthew Herzog


2017 was fucking challenging. Our political stage reeked of racism and market-friendly globalism. Each day shouldered yet another controversy. Horrendous news like sexual assault allegations about T.J. Miller, Weinstein, and over thirty male notables came beside nuanced conflicts like the feud between two powerhouse black figures, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.

Who we decide to be and how that functions in today’s American society has become a daily conversation. Arising out of politicians and their constituents, institutions and their staff, conglomerates and their consumers, are tough subjects and even tougher decisions. If anything could be said about 2017, the year was about the importance of dialogue.

Looking back, conversations were not only displayed in media and votes, they were present in our exhibitions. Artists used their talents to discuss our current lives. They risked replaying trauma for the effect of constructive discourse.

These ten Philadelphia exhibitions brought today’s anger, hope, distrust, desire, and heart to the forefront of our Art World.

In no special order, here are my top picks for 2017.



Speech/Acts : ICA Philadelphia

At the core of this exhibit is an intersection of language and black American experience. Accompanying pieces by Kameelah Janan Rasheed and artist/curator Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Speech/Acts organized The Racial Imaginary Institute: an interdisciplinary cultural laboratory. Over the course of six Saturdays, a reading group discussed topics from a course syllabus. (Yes, syllabus) This included whiteness, black experimental writing, blackness and poetry, and hidden grief. Find the syllabus here and an article on the exhibit by Huewayne Watson here.

 Portait of Suzanne Ciani

Portait of Suzanne Ciani

Making/Breaking the Binary - Women, Art, & Technology : Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery

Making/Breaking the Binary examines the female artists and female ‘technology pioneers’ working between 1968 and 1985. Furthering a conversation about underwritten women despite their contributions to technology and art, curator Kelsey Halliday Johnson received a $60,000 grant from The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage to execute this exhibition.

 Yvette Brackman, AGIT MEM, 2016, video still

Yvette Brackman, AGIT MEM, 2016, video still

Yvette Brackman - Underneath Father America’s Closed Eyelids Lies Russia :  Vox Populi

Taking up where a 1913 futurist Opera left off, Underneath Father America’s Closed Eyelids Lies Russia is the story of a family severed by a pogrom, an authoritarian approved persecution of an ethnic or religious group. Vibrating from within the narrative is a battle between primitivism and progress. Alongside the assumption technological advancement is accompanied by absolute peace there’s the quarantine of prior belief systems simultaneously existing during the genesis of an eerily similar belief.

 Julius Eastman.  Photo by Donald W Burkhardt

Julius Eastman.  Photo by Donald W Burkhardt

Julius Eastman - That Which is Fundamental : Slought Foundation and The Rotunda

The mammoth amount of talent that went into the curation, execution, and preparation of this exhibit is beyond understanding. I imagine it is only in the minds of co-creators Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Dustin Hurt the extent of That Which is Fundamental. Pianists, guitarists, flutests, video artists, and painters collaborated in this substantial homage to the composer Julius Eastman - a man whose international acclaim ended in a lonely and homeless death. Tackling issues like homosexuality in the black community, black artists in a dominantly white field, and the power of self-generated talent, this exhibit was something to attend and study.

Roundabout - solo exhibition by Michael Delgado : Great Far beyond Gallery (Include Video)

Added as a gesture to what I hope is more work from Michael Delgado, Roundabout was a tribute to doubt, sensuality, fantasy, confession and adornment. Personal and sometimes penitent, the show was like walking in the artist’s closet, leavings representational of a longing yet irreverent person.


Symphony for a Broken Orchestra : Tyler Contemporary

In conjunction with project partners like the School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Orchestra, Curtis Institute of Music, and the Found Sound Nation, Composer David Lang and Tyler Contemporary Director Robert Blackson brought light not only to the problem of musical resources and funding in our education system but the need for its solution. 450 musicians culminated in a performance at the 23rd Street Armory composed by Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang using the broken instruments. This led to the adoption and repair of all the instruments which were later returned to the children of the Philadelphia Public School District.


Ulises (No.1, 2, & 3)

Entering their second year, Ulises has proven acute awareness of social and cultural engagement. Listing all three of their quarterlies was the only Sophie’s Choice I could manage. Each with broad resonance, Ulises’ periodicals immersed topics like Active Voice, Migrations and Intimacy.


Hironaka + Suib : Locks Gallery

Not only engaging with a literal intersection dividing economic status in baltimore, Dark Light creators Matthew Suib and Nadia Hironaka entered the temporal and historical overlays between the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and topics like the Black Lives Matter movement. Using film and narrative, the collaborative pair engaged with the hundred years between the seminal movie and where we have arrived today.

 Dressing up the truth at William Way's exhibition. (Photo by Holly Clark

Dressing up the truth at William Way's exhibition. (Photo by Holly Clark

Still Fighting for our lives : AIDS Library William Way Foundation

‘Dead people don’t vote! Guarantee healthcare for all,’ read an historical poster. ‘Silence = Death’, written on a fluorescent pink dress. Celebrating their 30th anniversary, the William Way AIDS Library hosted an exhibition reflecting upon the story of AIDS in America. As the exhibit followed closely with the educational and supportive purpose of the Library, it also rang from the same tragedy and community effort in which the library was founded. The reality of pride is also the grief in our history. Which begged the question, have we arrived where we want to be?

Philadelphia Assembled : PMA & other locations

This project has a whole separate page on their website for all the collaborators and partners involved. In a massive sweep ‘that tells a story of radical community building and active resistance’, you couldn’t kick a squirrel without it hitting something relative to Philadelphia Assembled. Inspired by five values: futures, reconstructions, sovereignty, sanctuary, and movement, the project created months of events, discussions, activities, and exhibitions. Started by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk and supported by community builders like gardners, healers, and storytellers, Philadelphia was asked the question: How can we collectively shape our Future?

Honorable Mentions:

  1. Ryan Kelly - The Self Loathing Artist : Practice Gallery

  2. Logos : Little Berlin

  3. Slap Stick -  Matt Freedman : Fjord

  4. Summer Reading at Boone : New Boone

  5. Neck Out - Eric Anthony Berdis - Practice Gallery