New art installation visualizes life at the intersection of homelessness, drug use and sex work in Philly

From March 3 through March 8, harm reduction group Project SAFE is offering free admission to its “Not Welcome Anywhere” art installation.

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"Not Welcome Anywhere" co-curator Mae West with items belonging to sex workers and drug users related to their experiences. Gia’s sweatshirt after she was assaulted earlier this year (right); the purse and recreated outfit of Monica when she was arrested under suspicion of being a sex worker in Phoenix, Ariz. (center right); a broken toilet symbolizing the difficulty people who are unhoused have finding restrooms (center left); printed copies of bad date reports that give the description and location of dangerous people who hire sex workers in Philadelphia from 2023 (left). (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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A new art installation is drawing on stories of perseverance from people surviving homelessness, the opioid crisis and sex work in Philadelphia.

The installation called “Not Welcome Anywhere” is a week-long, multimedia art exhibition that features visual and auditory narratives of these harsh realities at Blah Blah Gallery in Callowhill.

Curated by harm reduction organization Project SAFE, the exhibit is based on a peer-to-peer diversion report which found that legal, medical and social services throughout Philadelphia are mostly inaccessible for people using drugs and trading sex.

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The art installation’s namesake is also trying to convey other issues, said co-curator and Project SAFE organizer Mae West — including systemic exclusion and discrimination.

“Folks who use drugs and trade sex and are living on the streets of Philadelphia are truly not welcome anywhere. From public restrooms to the free libraries, legal services,” West said. “Quite literally every single space is crafted and encouraged by the systems to actively exclude and discourage the existence of folks who are deemed undesirable in our society.”

Two people inside of a tent in an art installation.
“Not Welcome Anywhere” is an interactive art installation that shares artifacts from the lives of sex workers, drug users and people who are unhoused created by Project Safe at Blah Blah Gallery in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

For the installation, West and Project SAFE’s curation team wanted “Not Welcome Anywhere”e to be an interactive experience.

“It’s very tangible. There are many different immersive elements. There’s audio, they’re visual elements. There are things that you can touch and feel and investigate,” West said.

Among those items include a person’s tent, syringe needles framed in red velvet tapestry and a yellow hoodie stained with blood.

“We encourage folks to go in and not be afraid since a lot of what this exhibit does is it’s attempting to come back to this idea of art being something intangible and touchable, something,” West said.

A sweatshirt after an assault is on display
Gia’s sweatshirt after an assault, on display at the “Not Welcome Anywhere” exhibit at Blah Blah Gallery in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Other items throughout the exhibit are more common items, like a toilet. But co-curator and Project SAFE member Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal said there’s more meaning behind it.

“That’s just a basic everyday human need that the participants and our members in Kensington struggle every day to find — a bathroom that is accessible to them,” Blumenthal said. “Being viewed as homeless, as a sex worker, as a substance user, you tend to get denied from all public spaces. And so finding a space to just go to the bathroom can be really hard.”

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Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal poses for a photo with part of an exhibition.
“Not Welcome Anywhere” co-curator Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal with a memorial of candles, each dedicated to a member of Project SAFE who passed away, displayed at Blah Blah Gallery in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The exhibit also features a photo collage around police aggression and preventable overdoses, said Catalyst Geraci, a long-time Project SAFE member.

“I wanted the vision on the wall to represent and to show that the violence we face and the violence that street-based drug users and sex workers face is constant,” Geraci said. “Underneath it is all the ways in which we attempt to access services for ourselves and our participants and our organizers.”

Geraci said they want visitors to understand the experiences of discrimination and violence from police. But they also want to convey moments of joy and resistance in the community.

“The photos of joy and community connection are to educate or remind people that we don’t have to live this way,” Geraci said. “That criminalization of people isn’t required for the safety of any other people; that we as harm reductionists and loved ones of people who use criminalized drugs and trade sex, have created and are living in this world daily and another world is possible.”

“Not Welcome Anywhere” is on display from March 3 – 8 at Blah Blah Gallery, located at 319 N. 11th Street Unit 2A. The gallery is open from 6 p.m. – 9 p.m. with free nightly events beginning at 7 p.m. The week-long event also coincides with International Sex Worker Rights Week and International Women’s Day.

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