Their family has colored the city's cultural landscape for decades—now, take a closer look at the pictures that hit hardest.
Consider a family that has lost its mother. It’s a terrible circumstance, though not an uncommon one; all human history is the story of saying goodbye to our loved ones one at a time. But while death is universal, each family is unique, and our responses to loss say much about how we picture life as a whole.
Some families picture things much more concretely than others.
Take Mary’s family, for example. I do, every day, because Mary’s family is part of my own. She’d been so sick, so unhappy, for such a long time, that her three adolescent children knew the end had come as blessed relief for her. But, still, she was their mother. She was their leader, the star they orbited around. Without her, they weren’t entirely sure who they were anymore.
Their dad was okay on the surface—grief-struck, of course, but not lost. He’d spent so many years loving his wife that he could practically boot up the backup copy he held in his heart: could have whole conversations with her in her absence, could look at the world around him through her eyes instead of his own. But the kids? They’d only ever known a sick mom, and they had it rougher. The two sisters, never friends, tried to get along for the sake of Mom’s spirit, but the more they tried to force it, the more they seemed to hate each other. Finally, they stopped speaking entirely. And their younger brother resisted any attempt at mothering from either of them, hurling himself instead into a never-ending series of adrenaline-fueled distractions, twirling switchblades and knocking holes in his bedroom walls.
It would be almost fifteen years before Mary’s family truly figured out how to reconnect with themselves and each other—how to sit down together for Christmas dinner and relate comfortably like a family with a real future ahead of them, not just a past to excavate. I wonder, sometimes, what those years after their mother’s death might have been like if they’d had some shared means for exploring their new reality—some common passion to help them hold the center.
Then I look at another family. I look at the Tiberinos: a family of artists who’ve been filtering life and death through the pictures they create, both alone and together. And I find through their art that even the darker side of existence has plenty of light to shine on the rest of us.
Much has been written in Philadelphia over the years about that great married couple of visual artists, the late Ellen Powell Tiberino and her widower, Joseph: how her bold, raw depictions of local subjects made her the city’s premier African-American woman artist; how Joe’s subversively political folk-style paintings challenged his blue-collar Catholic orthodoxy; how the two of them formed a powerfully dynamic hub around which Philly’s artistic rebels congregated, cross-pollinated and flourished throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s; how Ellen died tragically young from cancer in 1992; and how Joe and their kids—three of whom, Raphael, Ellen and Gabe, became artists themselves—reinvented the family’s West Philly home as the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum, a living shrine to their circle’s creative output.
All that’s been said. What’s said less often is just how startlingly and uniquely powerful the younger Tiberinos’ individual bodies of work all are.
There’s never been a better moment than now to experience it. The African American Museum in Philadelphia is in the final weeks of its all-winter-long Tiberino family retrospective exhibit, The Unflinching Eye. Before the show closes, visitors will have two more occasions to accompany the artists themselves on a guided tour through AAMP’s galleries: the next two Saturdays, March 15 and March 22. It’s a rare opportunity to experience a historic collection of art in a historic way—at the side of the creators who produced it.
The exhibit is split into two halves in adjacent galleries, and at the start it’ll be tempting to spend the whole tour in the first half, which comprises Joseph and Ellen Powell Tiberino’s work along with their friends’. Because it grabs you before you’ve even reached the first gallery. As you walk up the ramp toward the show, you’re greeted en route by Joe’s 12-foot-wide “Wall of Black Heroes,” which depicts Frederick Douglass and Spike Lee hanging out together amid an epic crowd of equally impressive luminaries. Tear yourself away and keep walking in, and you’re stopped short by Ellen Powell Tiberino’s smaller, simpler, yet still more powerful “Ernestine,” a stark, black-and-white pencil portrait of a young woman whose superhumanly large eyes stare into your soul, framed by the massive explosion of natural curls pulled back around her face. So when you finally make it into the gallery proper and find yourself surrounded by a whole treasure horde of masterpieces by the two senior Tiberinos, you’ll want to take your time soaking it all in.
Do. But then keep walking. Because the three Tiberinos whose stories you don’t know already have hung their finest in gallery number two.
There’s no one dominant centerpiece positioned among the siblings’ work, so depending on which way your peripheral vision leans, one of three things will catch your eye first. Let’s say you skew right, in which case you’ll be pulled across the room by the vibrant blues and purples of a life-sized mother and child: the cheery toddler caught up, mid-run, in the arms of her nurturing mom. This is Gabe Tiberino’s “Flower of Life,” named for the floral starburst on the kid’s tank top that’s been pulled out of the realistic portrait and rendered more elaborately as a design motif in the background. There’s nothing overtly religious in the acrylic-and-oil details, yet nonetheless it’s a Madonna in green trousers and sneakers, love emanating like a halo in geometric rings from behind Mom’s eyes. Gabe is a muralist—you’ve seen his work on walls across Philly, even if you didn’t know it at the time—and it’s breathtaking to approach a large painting that seems so broad in scale from a distance, only to realize how sharp and nuanced each shade becomes at point-blank range.
From there, you spin counterclockwise across an entirely different field of vision: the younger Ellen Tiberino’s phantasmagorical mosaics. Her medium is deceptively simple, combining stained glass and ceramics into lush shapescapes of the natural and biological worlds: “Cattails” brings both simple botanical stalks and the setting sun to life as wild, primeval beasts, their respective movements in front of a pulsing blue sky all but animated by the whirls and eddies of the fractured heavens. Meanwhile, other pieces like “Am I Blue” and “I’m a Little Broken” incorporate ceramic casts of Ellen’s own body parts: her stray torso, her pensive, sleeping face, struggling either to break free or to surrender back into the abstract dreams in which they’re embedded.
Those hints of intimate motion push you gently back to the left-hand side of the room, where the painting you strode past upon entering still waits calmly. Raphael Tiberino’s “Latif”—a close-up portrait of their other brother, the one who decided not to become a professional artist—is big, bold and, contradictory as this may sound, intensely peaceful. The subject, a bear of a man, pauses, his eyes momentarily closed above a beatific half-smile even as the burly black field of his beard and shoulders blot out the irrelevant background. His face is radiant in its luminous golds, burning from within; despite the explicitly titled “Jesus and Lucifer” that Raphael has painted on the other side of the room, “Latif” is his true picture of the divine, the angelic. It’s a painting that makes you burn, too, to be in the presence of that person, to meet him, to see if you can see for yourself what it was that the artist saw.
On the surface, the three siblings’ work is almost entirely distinct, their respective styles as individual as Raphael, Ellen and Gabe are as people. But underneath? They’re all fueled by that same fire that we see beneath Latif’s broad cheeks and inside Ernestine’s cherubic eyes: the light of the transcendent determined to assert itself over mere flesh and earth. It’s no whim, after all, that Raphael’s rendering of the family homestead—looking down from an unnamed soul’s perspective upon the Tiberinos’ rough-hewn garden court from a vantage hovering above the backyard, where the most piercingly vibrant colors of nature, from summer’s greens to autumn’s reds, are infused fiercely into the walls of the house itself, into the brick path and the gazebos no less than into the grass and trees and leaves—is titled “The Triumph of Life After Death.”
The Unflinching Eye: Works of the Tiberino Family Circle is on display at the African American Museum in Philadelphia through Sat., March 22. Guided tours led by Joseph and Raphael Tiberino, with Ellen and Gabe Tiberino, will take place 1-2pm on Sat., March 15 and Sat., March 22. Free with admission: $14/adults, $10/students. 701 Arch St. 215.574.0380. aampmuseum.org. The Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum is open for special events and by appointment. 3819 Hamilton St. 215.386.3784. tiberinomuseum.org
Beyond The Unflinching Eye
After the exhibit at the African American Museum closes, art lovers will continue to find works by the Tiberino circle on display in various locales around Philadelphia. A few worth noting: The Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum in Powelton Village is open for special events and by appointment. Center City residents can find a mural by Joseph and Gabe Tiberino on the side of the Municipal Services Building on 15th Street across from Love Park. Raphael Tiberino curates the gallery at Vintage Wine Bar (which hosts an opening tonight, Wed., March 12, for the work of Sean Martorana). And Ellen Tiberino’s mosaic work can be seen inside Bikram Yoga at 1520 Sansom St. / S.H.S.