Art and the Invisible City

An exhibition exploring artistic responses to gentrification and racism in Trenton


Fields of Knowledge
  • Aesthetics / Media
  • Public culture

Organizing Institutions



Special thanks to The Lewis Arts Center, Princeton University; the Princeton Office of Community Engaged Scholarship; and The Princeton Humanities Council

Opens to public





4017 Walnut St Philadelphia, PA 19104

Slought is pleased to announce Art and the Invisible City, on display September 30-November 30, 2021. Art and the Invisible City confronts the innumerable ways that different forms of racism marginalize, hide, and exclude entire communities, making them invisible. It seeks to offer a means and an aesthetic vocabulary for countering this racism. Curated by D. Vance Smith, the exhibition features work by Trenton-based artists Leon Rainbow, Jonathan "Lank" Conner, C.a. Shofed, Habiyb Ali Shu'Aib, Jeff Stewart, Qaysean Williams, Khalilah Sabree, Tamara Torres, Eric Schultz, and Passage Theatre. An opening reception and discussion, free and open to the public, will take place on Thursday, September 30 from 6:30-8:30pm.

Moving beyond the assumption that so-called "inner" cities are not sites of creativity, this exhibition features Trenton artists whose work displays a vibrancy and hopefulness that, even when it emerges from a more generalized sense of disillusionment, exceeds and reinvents its context. This is work whose activism belongs to a fidelity to what is most enduring--and even most visible--in these communities, at least for those who wish to see what generally remains unseen. Not yet overwritten by gentrification, Trenton—as one of Philadelphia's "sister" cities—offers a chance to rethink the kinds of artistic placeholding that can resist the overwriting of a city by unrestrained development.

From the outside, a city like Trenton is largely hidden, illegible, and even cryptic to its neighbors. In many ways, it presents itself as a kind of crypt: sealed off, unknown, protecting those outside it from those within. But from within the city, these artworks create a record of what is invisible, what might have been forgotten, what was important, and will be again. They form a collective archive that preserves conditions of deprivation and trauma that may be formative; they also enclose and protect initiatives that resist the endless, recurring narrative of the inner, cryptic city as nothing more than a site of trauma. Each of the works in Art and the Invisible City imagines the shape of the city to come—a place of potential and possibility, not yet commodified in the atmosphere of gentrified neighborhoods, no longer constrained within the imaginary city policed by those who live close to but not in it.

These works, in other words, raise the question of the future, and especially in terms of care: not just why we should care, but what it means and what can happen when we do. How can we care for without participating in the extractive economies that either locate capital beyond the city, or understand it as the gentrified space of public art?

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Two of Trenton's most prominent aerosol artists, Leon Rainbow and LANK, pose this question in the space of the Slought gallery itself, with a piece produced for its largest wall, built around, quite literally, the cryptogram of invisibility. Two cycles of photographs, by Trenton photographers Jeff Stewart and Habiyb Ali Shu'Aib, record traversals and holdings of space in the May 2020 protests and at other moments, and form the trace of new archives of activism and everyday practice. Rooted deeper in the depopulated space of the postindustrial city, C.a. Shofed's metal photographs of abandoned sites of production represent the historical logic of extraction in the language of visual abstraction.

Also emerging out of Trenton's industrial past, the manifold significations of the work of the fashion designer Qaysean Williams—in his "manikin" series and in the "Trenton Makes" gown—move across the lines of performance, machinic assemblage, bodily possibility, and Afrofuturism, outlining the conditions of a new archive. Two important Trenton painters offer ways to think through the possibility of the archive. Paintings by Khalilah Sabree explore the dialectics of archival visibility via a medieval Muslim commentary on light, meditations on making manifest "the most visible of all things," despite those who deny this light. Tamara Torres's paintings confront the labyrinth of the city-as-crypt more directly, using the literal fragments of the archive—collage work that resists and transforms the totalizing gaze implied by the Abstract Expressionist gestures that sweep across the canvas, unable to relegate Torres's Afrocaribbean and Trentonian iconography solely to what must remain invisible, hidden in the city's crypts.

Finally, video fragments of Passage Theatre's collaboratively written play, OK Trenton, based on oral archives, recount the overnight erasure of a sculpture because of institutional fears that it endorsed "gang" culture. Video by Jeff Stewart; collaborative sculpture guided by Eric Schultz. The play's own interrupted form, suspended by the arrival of COVID, reflects the condition of art in the interrupted archive of Trenton art. There are other forms of interruption and doubling back in this archive: mural art is both a critique of institutional sponsorship and supported by it. Some of the same institutions that sponsor mural art are also responsible for buildings that are in reserve for commercial development. The erasure of art in these spaces belongs to the logic of imminent gentrification, a gentrification that is both attracted to improvised art, and resistant to it. The works in this exhibition expose this contradiction, even as they point to ways that may help us overcome it.

D. Vance Smith lives in Trenton, and teaches medieval and African studies at Princeton. His most recent book, Arts of Dying, explores the movement from crypt to archive in medieval literature. He is completing two books on Africa: The Annihilations and Blood Flowers.

"Wasn't a city millions of eyes that are windows opening on scenes invisible till the eyes construct them, till the eyes remember and set in meticulous detail the city that was there before they closed for sleep?"

— John Edgar Wideman, Philadelphia Fire