Philly youth combat censorship in Germantown art show

Young people from across Philadelphia have worked hard since October to put on an art show by teenagers and for teenagers in the heart of Germantown.

“Not Safe” For Teens opens at Imperfect Art Gallery on Saturday, June 1st, and will feature more than 20 Philadelphia high school students who submitted their work to the show. The show gives them a blank canvas to express their thoughts on the issues in the world most important to them, free from any form of censorship. The only restriction is on art that could incite hate or violence.

The show features all different art forms, from photography to painting, to vision boards. Some pieces may tackle challenging topics, such as war and genocide, queer rights, and immigration, but there is no single guiding principle other than free expression.

Clarissa Lanzas, a 17-year-old from Mt Airy and an artist herself, is excited to use the exhibit to challenge the boundaries of the topics that society deems to be “safe” for teenagers.

“I like the idea we came up with for having a safe space for teens to express whatever they want, even though other people might not consider it safe,” Lanzas said. They designed the show’s purple and yellow punk-themed poster, reminiscent of the women’s suffrage movement, and chose to add quotation marks around the words “not safe.”

Sitting on a picnic blanket in Rittenhouse Square, Lanzas explained to the Germantown Info Hub what this art show means for them.

“Society deems a lot of things not safe for teens to think about or do,” Lanzas said. “Just to have their free thoughts and to learn and express what they want to without being censored.” Two of the most important issues for them today are Philly’s drug epidemic and the high rate of homelessness in areas like Center City.

While some might not consider the topics in the show safe for teens, its goal is actually to create a safe space for teenagers.

On a Saturday afternoon in May, Lanzas and their fellow collaborator Maryam Rose Smith, 16, from Germantown, gathered in the park with Lorraine Ustaris, a Philly-based educator who is working with them as part of an internship with Imperfect Gallery. Together with Magdalena Johnson, they are the core organizers of “Not Safe” For Teens.

Together, they cut out images from magazines that slowly filled a blank vision board that asked the question “What kind of world do you want to live in 20 years?” Their goal is for visitors to the show to later add their own thoughts to the board.

Later, they approached strangers in the park, asking them to, on a palm-sized piece of paper, write any belief, question, statement, or fact that they would like to express to the world. Those papers would later be transformed into a 6-foot-tall paper mache anti-censorship sculpture in the shape of a mirrored disco ball.

Smith wants these collaborative art pieces to inspire other teenagers and young people in general, like herself.

“It can get in people’s minds what they want to see, and then they can start inciting change after that,” Smith said. “I feel like our collaborative art pieces are something small, but our hope is that it can set off something bigger, and can inspire something.”

Smith has been crafting social media posts for the project. She was drawn to the idea of fighting censorship through art.

“I noticed that there are people, young people especially, that don’t feel brave enough to use their physical voice to speak out,” Smith said. “I think that art is a great outlet for people who are maybe shy or maybe need anonymity or something to step behind but they still want to make their voice heard and make a difference in any way they can.”

Imperfect Gallery co-owner Renny Molenaar said the teens are in charge of nearly every aspect of the show, from recruiting artists to marketing to curating to installing.

“The principle that drives the gallery is the same approach I’m taking with the kids,” he said. That is, “to provide artists with an unrestricted space.” Nothing, from drilling holes to writing on the walls, is out of the question.

“I want the kids to be able to voice their opinions, I want them to be able to grapple with their politics and with their emotions,” said Molenaar. “It’s hands off. We give them the opportunity to fail; you have the responsibility to resolve your problems, and that’s the beauty of it because that’s what amazing art comes out of. You cannot be an artist if you do not have the audacity to fail.”

Ustaris, who helped organize the initiative, said she wants the teenagers to learn that art and civic engagement go hand in hand. She previously worked as a journalist, which gave her a deep familiarity with issues of censorship, press freedom, and First Amendment rights. Developing the show over the past eight months has also given her a deeper understanding of the issues that young people hold closest to them.

“I think it’s important to have organizations for youth to join that are outside the jurisdiction of any institution because you get to explore things you might not get to explore,” Ustaris said.

On the Saturday before the show opened, Magdalena Johnson, 15, of Germantown, was hard at work with Ustaris in the gallery blow-drying their giant paper mache ball. The messages glued to it will be covered when the exhibition begins, and participants will pull away the paper on top one by one to reveal them, leaving them uncensored.

Johnson, a poet, knows what it feels like to be told a topic is “unsafe” for people her age, despite it being an everyday part of her life. She remembers participating in a Trans Day of  Remembrance walkout last December and hearing that Trans rights are too sensitive of a topic for teens to be discussing openly —that is, despite one of her two mothers being Trans herself.

“I think there’s a really big disconnect, especially in the city of Philadelphia, about what can and can’t be said, especially around teens,” she said. “When I was thinking about “Not Safe” For Teens it reminded me that there are things that we relate to and identify as that are not safe, and there are things that we can’t talk about because it’s not safe.”

Magda is sharing a selection of poems in the show, which will be bound into a diary, and displayed in a room of the gallery, decorated like a teenager’s bedroom.

The diary will be “really personal and really private,” she explained, and yet “people are allowed to look through it.” That contradiction, she said, is how it feels at times being a teen. The poems themselves are “about how upsetting it is to not be able to talk about who I am and not be able to share who I am and not be able to hear who other people are.”

This is an exciting moment for teenage artist Lishele Liyuwork to share her painting with the world. Her mother, Shelli Branscomb, encouraged her to join the show after hearing about it online. 

“I’m excited for her,” Shelli said as she and her daughter dropped off an oil painting at the gallery. “I think it’s important to see what you can put together, to push yourself, to celebrate yourself.”

Lishele’s painting depicts a person with their hands over their knees, feeling lost in a void. “I’m trying to use [the show] as a chance to push myself,” Lishele said. “I’m not really confident in my art and shoutout to my mom for encouraging me to do this and see that my artwork has value.”

The show at Imperfect Gallery will be up for two weeks, but it’s just the beginning of “Not Safe” For Teens, which the teenagers and Ustaris all hope will continue for years to come.

“I want there to be a lot more submissions, a lot of diverse submissions from every part of the city,” said Smith.

Lanzas thinks the focus could be expanded. “Instead of just teens, we could branch off, maybe,” she added. “Instead of doing just an art exhibit, we could have live exhibits.”

Ustaris is leaving her options open and wants to see where the teens’ ideas take them. “This being our first year, it’s exciting to me to see how much interest I’ve seen,” she said. “Hopefully, this can become even bigger next year.”

From Germantown Info Hub