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Source: University City Review
Date: December 9, 2009
Byline: Haywood Brewster

Riffing on the President's House: Work in Progress & Discussion

This Friday, at the African American Museum (701 Arch Street), the Philadelphia Folklore Project has organized a first showing of work in process by three spectacular Philadelphia artists, including West Philadelphia jazz musician and composer Bobby Zankel, dancer/choreographer Germaine Ingram, and visual artist John Dowell. The three are developing a performance piece commemorating the nine African Americans slaves kept by George Washington in the Phiadelphia President?s house, a building that stood on a site just steps away from the current Liberty Bell Pavilion.

This event is a chance to see early work-in-progress and for public discussion about how this emerging performance piece can create alternative and complementary spaces for community reflection on the meaning and significance of the President?s House site, and about artists? collaborative engagement with historical matters of continuing consequence. Zankel originated the multimedia project. He was stimulated by his encounters with the site and invited Germaine and John to work with him. He has been composing music that explores the dignity and power of the enslaved Africans living in the house, drawing on what is known of ring shouts and other African traditions which have been through-lines for generations. Dowell began in 2007 to create a portfolio of photographs at the site of the open excavations where enslaved Africans lived and worked in the presidential household. He later worked in multiple mediums with these photographs, and is continuing to create compelling and moving images which will ultimately become the visual environment for the dance and music. And Ingram has been imagining the everyday lives and emotions of the nine individual Africans in the President?s House, writing songs and creating dances that use percussive/tap dance to meditate on the experiences of enslavement and intimate engagement with Washington?s family. All three artists? deep involvement with the project results in work of emotional and imaginative power. At this first public sharing, the artists will offer excerpts of their creative effort, and will reflect on their creative process for expressing the contradictions, ironies, and present-day impact of slavery?s practice in America?s first seat of national government. We appreciate your joining the discussion about how history is preserved and retold, how resonances of the past affect the way race works in the 21st Century, and how art can be a vehicle for exploring such issues.?

Sixth and Market Streets was the site of the President?s house from 1790 to 1797 while George Washington was President. It was also a site where enslaved Africans worked and lived, including nine who are known: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe (Richardson). Oney Judge and Hercules escaped to freedom from this site; the Fugitive Slave Law was signed here.

This project explores the implications of the practice of slavery in a place that was the first capitol building for the new nation. The artists desire to create neither a period piece nor a polemic. But they wish to tap as deeply and concretely as the limited historical material allows into the lives of the nine enslaved Africans and their relationships with the Washington family and the society of whites and free African Americans immediately outside their place of enslavement. This artistic challenge demands that the artists expand their knowledge, understanding and application of African/African American cultural themes and traditions, influences that have long been central to each of their work.

Visual artist John Dowell has created and exhibited work for over four decades. Professor of Printmaking at the Tyler School of Art of Temple University, Dowell has had over 49 one person exhibitions at prestigious venues including the 35th Venice Biennale, the 1975 Whitney Biennial in New York City, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. His artwork is represented in the permanent collections of 70 museum and public collections.

Composer/saxophonist Bobby Zankel first began attracting attention in the early 70s for his work with Cecil Taylor; his underground reputation grew on the New York loft scene, where he performed with the likes of Ray Anderson, William Parker, and Sunny Murray. Zankel became a Philadelphian in 1975. In 1995 he received a prestigious Pew Fellowship in the Arts. He has worked for more than a decade in artist in residence programs in the Pennsylvania prisons. He directs "Warriors of the Wonderful Sound."

Germaine Ingram came under the spell of jazz tap dance in the early 1980s when she began intensive study with internationally acclaimed tap artist and teacher, the late LaVaughn Robinson. Since that time, she has pursued tap?s call through performance, choreography, teaching, oral history, video-making and stage production. For more than 20 years, she performed with her mentor, Robinson, and has also pursued work as a soloist. She has shared bills with tap greats spanning at least three generations, including Honi Coles, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, the Nicholas Brothers, Gregory Hines, Dianne Walker, Brenda Bufalino, and Savion Glover. She appeared with Robinson in the Emmy Award-winning public television production "Gregory Hines? Tap Dance in America" and has numerous choreographic credits.

The Philadelphia Folklore Project is a 23-year-old public interest folklore non-profit with a mission to sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region, build critical folk cultural knowledge, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities. More information about the Folklore Project is at For more information, call 215.726.1106.

This free event is organized by the Philadelphia Folklore Project presented in collaboration with the African American Museum in Philadelphia. It is funded by The Pew Center for Art and Heritage, through Dance Advance, and by the National Endowment for the Arts.


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