Trans and nonbinary icons to be honored in new murals

A rendering of Kah Yangni’s mural, which will be installed at Cake Life Bake Shop in Fishtown.

Two murals celebrating transgender and nonbinary Philadelphians will soon be installed in the city — one on the facade of Philly AIDS Thrift in Queen Village and the other on the side of Cake Life Bake Shop in Fishtown. The murals are the culmination of a partnership between Mural Arts’ Porch Light program and West Philadelphia’s Morris Home, the only recovery program in the U.S. for trans and gender nonconforming individuals. 

“There is such an incredible history of trans leadership and organizing that gets covered up, that gets whitewashed,” said Morris Home Director Laura Sorensen. “I think that it is such an amazing opportunity to highlight all the beautiful, gorgeous things that trans Philadelphians bring into our city.”

Mural Arts and Morris Home will host a free event in Clark Park at 5:00 p.m. on July 28, where members of the public can paint panels from both murals. The event will feature politically-charged artwork from Morris Home residents, performances by trans and nonbinary artists, family-centric art activities, resource tables, Narcan training and food and drink. 

Philadelphia-based artists Wit López, Ali Williams and Kah Yangni were hired through Porch Light to facilitate workshops in art-making and discussion for Morris Home residents. Williams and Yangni also designed murals based on creative input from the residents. 

“We did one workshop where I asked them, ‘what do you want people to get out of this mural, what is really important about the culture of Morris [you] want people to know,’” Yangni said. “They dictated a list — they were really clear on what they wanted it to be.”

A photo shoot at Bartram’s Garden became the design for Yangni’s mural, which manifests in a drawing of Morris Home residents under a tree surrounded by flowers and plants, along with text from the list that the residents created. 

“I think it’s really awesome to be queer; I think it’s really awesome to be trans,” Yangni said. “I love to yell about it, and I think that we deserve that visibility; we deserve space in public; we deserve great lives; we deserve to be safe and happy, and have love. I think part of that is taking up a lot of space.” 

In a similar fashion, Williams’ mural is the product of discussion and collage-based workshops with Morris Home residents, where their ideas largely fueled the design. Williams’ mural honors the lives of trans Philadelphians and incorporates a portrait of Nizah Morris — from whom Morris Home got its name — who died under mysterious circumstances in 2002 and whose case has never been solved.

“Through the workshops, people felt really strongly about wanting to portray the past and acknowledge the present, and then also look to the future,” Williams said. “I ended up taking some ideas and imagery that residents came up with in collage workshops and through our conversations, and translated them literally and symbolically. It’s really Morris Home’s voice and things that they wanted to see in the mural.”

Although they’re not painting a mural for this project, López led workshops that consisted of doing hands-on art in person, but shifted to Zoom when the pandemic dictated lockdowns and physical distancing. They invited guests to lead drawing workshops, for example, but also filled virtual space with performances from LGBTQ+ musicians and other artists, many of whom are trans and gender nonconforming.   

López, Yangni and Williams conveyed the importance of engaging in art as a means of self-expression and healing.  

“For me personally, I think experiencing art and allowing myself the space to have joy for myself through art is important,” said López. “All of my workshops were centered on not just the art itself and the performances, but bringing joy to the space and creating opportunity for joy and laughter, because joy got me through and out of my issues. I was more than glad to bring it there.” 

In addition to serving as director for the Porch Light program, Nadia Malik works as a social worker where she incorporates a lot of art therapy into her work. 

“I think art in general is an amazing avenue to express trauma, for expressing any kind of mental health concern,” Malik said. “Trauma specifically [is] often encoded in the non-verbal portion of our brain, so providing people with avenues that are art-based is a really great way to help express themselves. We want to provide as many options as possible for folks.”

The mural artists and the program directors communicated the significance of depicting trans and nonbinary individuals in such public spaces. Williams noted that in one of her workshops, “someone said ‘we’re still here.’ There is such a lack of representation and equity for the LGBTQIA community as a whole, and that’s especially true for trans and nonbinary individuals.”

Much of PGN’s reporting focuses on the inequities that LGBTQ communities face — the disproportionately high number of queer and trans people of color who experience homelessness and addiction, who struggle with self-harm, who rely on sex work to survive. The epidemic of violence against trans women of color shows no sign of decelerating.  

“Making sure that all the voices in the community are getting heard and amplified is really important,” Sorensen said.

López cautioned that although trans visibility can be positive for the community, it can be dangerous for trans folks. “I also want to acknowledge the fact that hyper visibility for trans and gender nonconforming people can sometimes also lead to violence,” they said. 

Ultimately, the artists communicated feelings of positivity toward representing the trans community through these public artworks. 

“This project is something that if I saw it on the street, I would cry,” Yangni said. “I’m really happy about being able to make it and being able to live in a city [where] something like this is going to exist.”

The public painting event will take place from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on July 28 at Clark Park, 4300 Baltimore Avenue. More information on the artists can be found at their websites: Wit López, Kah Yangni and Ali Williams.