‘Allá Abajo’: Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens Begins Residency Program with Ornella Ridone’s New Exhibit
The new art exhibit uses textiles to explore the complex relationship between the United States and Mexico.
Contemporary Mexican artist Ornella Ridone has debuted her new installation, “Allá Abajo (Down Below): A Reaction to Our Times,” at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. The exhibit runs from May 4 through July 8, and is the first in the Magic Gardens’ Julia Zagar Residency for Women Artists. In the exhibit, Ridone uses textile and embroidery to explore immigration, consumerism, and the complex relationship between the United States and Mexico. I met with Ridone before the exhibit’s opening, and learned about her inspiration, her process, and how to interact with the work.
“Allá Abajo” is located entirely inside the Magic Gardens’ gallery space. When Ridone was asked to create an installation there, she was concerned about how her work would fit into Isaiah Zagar’s wonderfully ornate and colorful mosaics. She wanted to create something that would stand out as separate, but at the same time would not conflict with its surroundings. However, her work is essentially very similar to Zagar’s—both use found discarded or damaged materials that they combine, reimagine, and repurpose to tell their own stories. In her case—rather than Zagar’s broken pottery, bottles, or wheels, for example— the medium is textile.
I walked into the first room of the exhibit on the morning before it opened to the public, and there was Ridone on the floor, sewing the finishing touches into her massive creation. Upon first glance, it was a giant Mexican flag of green, white, and red. But look closer, and it is made entirely of clothing, all donated from Mexico. I asked her if the piece was to be hung up after she was done sewing, and she replied that it was to remain on the floor, meant to exaggerate the “down below” concept, as Mexico is both geographically “below” the United States, and also is seen as “lower status.”
The piece took up the entire room, which had to be traversed to reach the next room of her exhibit, so the only option was to walk on it. I was hesitant to do so, and told her I felt guilty stepping on her work—that feeling, she told me, was part of the work.
“What are our feelings when we step on it? What are the implications?” Ridone asks of her audience.
The next room contained white squares of fabric embroidered in red with intricate scenes and illustrations evoking Philadelphia iconography. When Ridone came to visit Philadelphia last year, she kept a diary with illustrations, and revisited these memories by creating these pieces when she returned home to Mexico.
The pictures combine familiar sights—a SEPTA logo, City Hall, even a Shane Confectionery label—but are incorporated with feelings of fear, longing, and the solitude she sees as a byproduct of consumer culture. There is a motif of junk food in some of the pieces, connecting a different kind of “consumption” to the conversation.
“What emptiness are they trying to fill?” she asked as we came upon one such embroidery. At the same time, Ridone was pleasantly surprised to see the juxtaposition of new and old, and the history of the country that is still reflected in Philadelphia’s architecture—this was different than how the United States is typically portrayed in pop culture around the world.
The final room of the exhibit contains just one piece: a giant pair of white overalls hung from the ceiling (made to look obese in how it is suspended), also embroidered with red thread. This time, the embroidery is mainly of guns, food, alcohol, and luxury goods.
The piece is called “More is Always Better,” a phrase Ridone saw in a magazine during her visit, and comments on the effects that attitude can have on the body, the country, and the world. Consumerism, she is saying, creates a society that “ends up feeling the need to use guns and create walls to defend itself.” When talking about the relationship between Mexico and the United States in our current times, this statement is particularly resonant.
Allá Abajo (Down Below): A Reaction to Our Times” is an incredibly unique exhibit with a clear voice and challenging questions. For a younger viewer, it can provide an interesting glimpse at how an “outsider” perceives America, as well as how to use different media to express yourself. To celebrate the exhibit and make it accessible for a younger audience, the Magic Gardens has planned a PECO Family Jam event on June 10, which will include hands-on workshops and kid-friendly tours.
Photographs by Laura Swartz.