notes from the Curator

By Yolanda Wisher

Chronicling Resistance: The Exhibition was created by a group of Activist-Curator Fellows amidst local uprisings and gun violence, national protests and political division, and a global pandemic. Many of the folks who created this exhibition—fellows, staff, and partners—did so alongside a great deal of personal loss, anxiety, rage, despair, and uncertainty. We started with eleven fellows, and through the ups and downs of the project and life, we ended with eight.This exhibition was also created in the midst of many structural changes and upheavals at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The work of chronicling acts, communities, and movements of resistance is often done under duress and while resisting, undertaken by survivors who are forced to do the difficult work of looking back while moving forward.

The eight fellows set out to illuminate the stories of Philadelphians who resisted oppression, assimilation, hatred, inferiority complexes, and the silences of history. Their research was inspired by a search for kinfolk of blood, culture, intellect, and soul in the past. They were also in search of ideas and solutions that could inform the cultural work, community organizing, and artistic work they are already deeply engaged in. They led community programs to share their learnings, and they explored the idea of what an exhibition born out of resistance stories could be.

This was not easy work physically, mentally, or spiritually. The ways that traditional archives can be built, guarded, and anointed requires a steeliness of purpose and unrelenting sense of hope to locate and uplift the marginalized stories of marginalized folks within them. The work of activating the research requires feats of the imagination to feel in the dark for a thread of the past that will be a lifeline for today. Some of these objects and artifacts were never meant to be

re-examined or re-interpreted in the way the fellows have done. They were not meant for our 21st century critical eyes, prizmatized by Blackness, Asianness, and queerness. For the fellows, these objects and artifacts are ripe with the loss of real mothers, sisters, brothers, and fathers, and real historical wounds that have never healed. The work behind Chronicling Resistance: The Exhibition sought to recover an intimacy with freedom seekers of the past that confronts and defies the barriers of trauma, time, and institution.

Visitors to Chronicling Resistance: The Exhibition experience Malkia Okech's work, Sept. 22, 2002
Community Altar in Chronicling Resistance: The Exhibition, Parkway Central Library, Sept. 22, 2022

We have all learned some deep lessons about the power of libraries, solidarity, and looking back these past two years of creating Chronicling Resistance: The Exhibition. For one, a library can be a home and hub for the seeds of living activism and art, not just a mausoleum for the overanalyzed records and ideas of dead white men. Secondly, Black and Brown communities have competed through different points of Philly’s history for acknowledgement, resources, and space. In the work of looking back through archives of resistance, we can see missed opportunities for solidarity and mutual aid that don’t have to be missed again. Through the fellows’ work on this exhibition, we can sense the possible futures of community building between us.

Finally, looking for and encountering acts of resistance in the past should be an ongoing, regular practice for us all. It can make us feel like we can exist whole, with dignity and purpose, with roots that give us an anchor in the tumultuous sea of the present. We look back and see what it looks like to not give up or to give in to despair. It can show us that living with eyes wide open is possible and that resistance takes many forms—hoofin’, writing poems, cooking stew, protesting in the streets, teaching in the schools, traveling the world, or escaping oppressive regimes. We look back to find the strength we need to define and defend the freedom that is ours.
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