A block-long mural has gone up in North Philly celebrating Philadelphia as a sanctuary city. The image depicts immigrants crossing the U.S. Southern border.
But it’s really all about the hair.
Most of the 3,000-square-foot image, “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood,” is taken up by a young woman with a giant Afro. Her hair is comprised of intertwined symbols of Latinx heritage. There are too many to list here, but the ‘do includes Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons, an Aztec Quetzalcoatl feathered serpent, a dancing devil from Bolivia, and a pair of gods from the Yoruba religion of West Africa.
“It’s all a giant world of culture and identity,” said artist Ian Pierce, who goes by Artes Ekeko. “It’s also right here on this corner, in the barrio.”
Pierce was standing at Fifth and Huntingdon streets in North Philadelphia, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood with Mexican, Dominican and Peruvian residents, as well. Pierce painted the wall of the building that used to be Taller Puertorriqueno, a Latinx arts organization. A few years ago, it moved catty-corner across the intersection.
The building is now used by the Providence Center, a community education organization. Teenage students from Providence were recruited to help paint the wall.
“Fellow Latinos and non-Latinos need to understand that the Providence Center and this community is a sanctuary,” said Charito Morales, a community organizer with Providence.
She spoke in Spanish at the unveiling of the mural.
“This is one community, and we are not divided. The neighborhood has a lot of culture. The neighborhood has a lot of talent. The neighborhood has a lot of art. The neighborhood is not lost,” she said.
Morales stood before the image of the woman with the hair, who is pushing aside border walls. On her shoulders are tattoos: the word “sanctuary” on the right; on the left an American flag.
Dead center of the mural are her dark eyes, set under thick brows, ready to move forward.
“I don’t want her to be fierce. I want her to be determined,” said Ekeko. “It’s also important that it’s a ‘she.’ All over the world, women are being real agents of change. It thought it was important for the central image to be a woman.”
Ekeko was asked by Mural Arts Philadelphia to make “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” on the strength of his previous work for the organization. Last year, he made “Families Belong Together” in Fishtown, a portrait of an infant held by its parents migrating north, carrying gallon jugs of water and surrounded by the dangers of travel (gangs, police, drug traders, smugglers). The trio is shown with halos in the style of religious paintings.
That work was in response to the Trump administration crackdown on illegal immigration that took children away from their parents in detention centers.
For this work, Ekeko was paired with the local artist Betsy Casañas, who led the design on the adjacent wall of the Providence Center. It shows the slats of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and a long line of immigrants approaching it. In the foreground is a large portrait of a Latina woman.
Compared to the Afro around the corner, with its explosion of colorful, sometimes whimsical indigenous symbols, Casañas’ image carries a more somber message of dissent.
“It’s heartbreaking to see how people are being so mistreated,” said Casañas at the mural dedication. “This mural is a protest. This mural is our way of talking, of being a voice for those who are silenced and made to look like criminals.”
The mural was created in record time. A project this size is typically expected to take at least three months to plan, execute, and install. “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” took just six weeks.