“History,” grumbled Stephen Dedalus, the young antihero of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” The two young artists behind the engaging multimedia art installation currently gracing the Hatfield House would most likely contend that history is a dreamscape from which they can pursue paths into their past and then into the future.
The project is mainly the work of two local artists, Camae Ayewa and Rasheeda Phillips, who partner as a collaborative team under the name Black Quantum Futurism Collective. Phillips and Ayewa are talented multidisciplinary artists employing different art forms to forge new perspectives on history, the present and possibilities in the future.
The overall title of their current project is Ancestors returning again/this time only to themselves. It’s set up in three rooms of the historic Hatfield House on the edge of Fairmount Park. (Hatfield began its existence as a farmhouse built around 1760. Originally situated near Hunting Park Avenues, it was moved to its present location in 1930.)
Billed as an Afrofuturistic site-specific art installation, Ancestors returning again/this time only to themselves explores a large stretch of journey of the African diaspora here in America, coursing from the past into the present with hints of the future.
Elsewhere, Rasheeda Phillips has defined Afrofuturism as mixing the past and present with the future of Afrocentrism, unobstructed by the influence of Western culture.
The experience of Ancestors returning again/this time only to themselves starts on the ground with a large room with a number of interesting features. The central focus here involves three screens arranged into a triangle, running three- different video loops. The videos show different aspects of the African American experience. The most interesting of the three videos is titled ‘Entropy Portal”. This film, more than its two companion films, looks at a people’s experience with time and history.
Time is a key theme of the project. Accordingly, the two main rooms have a number of timepieces including clocks and pocket watches. A number of these timepieces are broken, with hands missing, suggesting the broken nature of time. As Rasheeda Phillips says, several parts of the project are open to a range of interpretations, though one persistent notion here the artists’ shared regret that connections to the Black past were often cut off by those in power, so it’s necessary to try to find what is still retrievable and building from there. The challenge the artists took on is evidenced in this project, which they see as one way of reasserting agency and forging connections with their past, which is ultimately the past of all African Americans.
In addition to the videos, there are also Surrealist-inspired paintings, collages composed of various objects (especially those timepieces), and sketches. The performers in the videos are all Philadelphia-based actors and activists committed to projects such as this.
On the second floor, two rooms extend the range of the installation, one of which is roped off so that visitors can’t enter. Just to the left of the door frame of this room is a sign reading “Transmission From A Quantum Time Capsule”. As the team’s brochure explains it, this is “a sonic record of a quantum time capsule holding Black cultural artifacts excavated from Black sites of memory.
As the artists affirm, this project is one way of reasserting agency and forging connections with their past, which is the past of all African Americans.
You could probably take in the three rooms of the installation in half an hour. But this would only provide some intense first impressions. One suggestion I might make is to come for an initial visit, take in the installation on its own terms, let those first impressions percolate, then go back for a second or even third visit. This is the kind of art installation that can reward such repeated viewings.
The Hatfield House is located at the intersection of 33rd Street and West Girard Avenue. It is open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1:00 – 5:00, through September 19. While no reservations are required, visitors are admitted on a first-come, first-in basis. Masks are required within the house, though you can remove masks while strolling around the grounds.
One important tip: The entrance to the Hatfield House property is not easy to find. It is highly advisable to approach from 31st and Girard (32nd Street does not go through to Girard), then drive slowly as the road slopes up towards 33rd Street. Before you actually enter 33rd Street, you’ll see a small path on your left. Take this path and continue a short distance to the small parking area that fronts the Hatfield House.