New art exhibit at Philadelphia Intl. Airport is memorial for mercy and justice

Aug 29, 2021

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Philadelphia is open for business and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) is doing its part to give a warm welcome to arriving passengers and anyone just passing through.

This weekend, PHL became the second U.S. airport to receive flights carrying U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

Earlier in the week, the airport debuted its newest temporary art exhibition, “Fans of Homage,” featuring church style-inspired fans made by Ife Nii Owoo. The fans, which have thick wooden handles and exquisitely decorated blades, are designed to heighten awareness of issues faced by Black Americans and are also a call for justice.

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“I have used the fan as a medium or shape to record family memories, speak against Jim Crow, and call for mercy and justice,” explains Owoo.

The Philadelphia-based Owoo says she uses the fan shape as her as a medium in part because “the form is associated with African spirituality and a way to keep cool while ‘praising the lord.’ I have taken this form to create a spirit of memory, they are amulets of protection and offer me the opportunity to work outside of traditional canvas squares and golden rectangle.”

For the PHL exhibit, Owoo is presenting 20 of the intricate fans she meticulously creates with everything from hand-painted watercolor paper, photo-based images and monoprints to recycled objects. The works date back to 2010 and include the moving 10-piece “Amazing Grace” series Owoo created as a permanent, moveable memorial to the mass shooting that killed nine African Americans in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015 — Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.

“The fan’s symbolism evokes memories of my great aunts on a hot summer day, fanning away discomfort while praying at my grandmother’s funeral,” says Owoo.

Artist Ife Nii Owoo fans, on display at PHL airport. (Photo courtesy of Philadelphia International Airport)

Related: 5 destinations where you can learn about Black history in America

Owoo created her first fan in 2007, in honor of Phylis Wheatly (also spelled Phillis Wheatley), the first African American to publish a book of poems and views her fans “as a platform to create a spirit of memory and amulets of protection.” In addition to these fans, Owoo works on traditional canvases, on found objects, collages and shaped paintings, and public art commissions. She is also the author of a “A is for Africa,” an alphabet picture book filled with colorful watercolors and graphic illustrations created as an alternative to the negative or highly romanticized images of Africa and Africans in the ’70s and ’80s.

PHL’s art program is actively managed and includes a wide variety of temporary exhibitions by local artists, many of whom are taking the opportunity to share with the traveling public very personal work that is influenced by recent events happening throughout the country and the world. Examples include “Fill the Walls with Hope” by Mark Strandquist, and Carole Loeffler’s “Granny Graffiti,” which uses vintage doilies as canvases for positive notes.

Related: These 7 airports have such stunning artwork, they’re like museums

Leah Douglas, PHL’s director of guest experience development and art program curators, says the two exhibits “not only brighten our terminals with beautiful artwork, they provide the words of encouragement many people need to see and hear right now.” Another exhibit, “Plastic Galactic,” is about “recycling and as a continual and unending re-creation, set in the context of astrological and geologic time frames,” says the artist, Simone Spicer, and include approximately 2,500 salvaged single use-containers that Spicer collected.

“The challenges of the last year have been unprecedented, from the pandemic to civil unrest and social injustice,” said Douglas, “The exhibitions are one way that the airport can amplify the City’s creative community and its unique cultural life to millions of guests from around the world.”

Related: Philadelphia is open for business: Here’s what you need to know to plan a trip

All images courtesy of the Philadelphia International Airport.

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