June 09, 2023
As part of Philadelphia's celebration of Juneteenth, the city's first mural inspired by Black Americans' freedom from slavery will be installed on a wall of a Germantown community center, just two doors down from the historic Underground Railroad stop the Johnson House.
Designed by Keisha Whatley, the creative director of Custom Arts Studio, the 1,100-square-foot art piece will be revealed on the west side of Germantown ArtHaus, which Whatley founded, on Saturday, June 17 as part of the neighborhood's annual Juneteenth celebration. The mural faces the Johnson House, a staple of Historic Germantown that sheltered and fed enslaved people as they sought freedom during the 1800s. (Abolitionist and "Father of the Underground Railroad" William Still participated in meetings at the Johnson House; Harriet Tubman may have visited too.)
The mural explores themes of birth, brokenness, healing and transformation and is told through five levels covered in vines: African pre-colonial history and royalty; the transatlantic slave trade; Juneteenth; police brutality, racism and protests; and the future of equality. The latter two levels will be added in 2024.
Whatley, who has worked as a visual artist since she was a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, explained that the mural needed to begin its story before the colonization of Africa. "If we are going to tell the story, let’s be sure to tell the whole story," she said.
"Being next to the Johnson House and all of the other historical landmarks in Germantown made it a real 'no brainer' to install the mural on the ArtHaus wall," Whatley said. "The mural is a service to the community and the city. I look at the beams that form the structure of the building and remember that these planks of wood were possibly from trees that enslaved humans ran through to get freedom."
The mural was painted by volunteers, local artists and more than 400 students from Hill-Freedman World Academy during community paint days, which Whatley documented on the ArtHaus Instagram earlier this year. The project was partially funded by Mural Arts Philadelphia and the Capital One Café, while its dedication ceremony is being hosted by Voices Underground.
"As an Indigenous (Leni-Lenape and Nanticoke) African American, it is a true honor to celebrate the holiday, the sacrifices and the spirit of excellence that our forefathers and grandmothers embodied for us to even be here today," Whatley said.
The mural will be unveiled at 2 p.m. on June 17. The ceremony will open with a performance by Julian King, a Philly-based R&B artist and former contestant on NBC's "The Voice." Guests will be able to meet and talk about the mural with Whatley and other artists responsible for its design.
RhythmetriX will be on-site for an African drum performance, and guests can enjoy soul food, martinis and cupcakes from West Philly's Tiny Cakes Bakery.
The mural dedication will occur during Germantown's 17th annual Juneteenth Festival, hosted by the Johnson House Historic Site from 12 to 7 p.m. The free festival commemorates African American emancipation from enslavement with musical performances, food trucks, a vendor marketplace and more.