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‘Kensington Riots Project': Immigrant experiences, then and now

The ‘Kensington Riots Project’ connects the struggles of 19th-century Irish Philadelphians to young Arab-American artists.

When Maria Moller attended "Yard Songs" more than two years ago, she was confronted with an unsavory era in Philadelphia history. The multimedia installation was artist Jebney Lewis' elegy to the train-age of Kensington, but the piece also touched on the oft-forgotten Kensington Riots of 1844, when Protestant groups clashed with Irish immigrants, resulting in at least 20 deaths. The event led to, among other things, the formation of Philadelphia's fire department and Catholic schools.

Inspired, she contacted Lewis with a new idea: "The Kensington Riots Project." The piece would be created with neighborhood kids, connecting their immigrant experiences to the struggles of the Irish over 170 years ago.

After a year and a half of development, workshops and street art, KRP is launching a gallery opening this weekend, featuring highlights of the process and celebrating seven of the most committed high school participants.

The young artists were all originally selected through the Philly-based Arab-American Community Development Corporation.

"It was always important to me to involve people from the neighborhood -- people that had a more visceral connection to some of the issues this raises," says Moller, an actress, writer and co-founder of Shakespeare in Clark Park. "It's been an educational project, but we've been approaching it more as a collaborative art project."

Funded by PEW Charitable Trusts, during the past year students have been researching the riots and creating street art at the sites of some the most brutal clashes. In one piece -- created with the help of local poet Frank Sherlock -- they created faux-historical placards commemorating victims. "It was really amazing that they were so open to creating stuff," says Moller. "I think it was kind of bizarre of me to be like, 'Hi kids, I'm going to introduce you to conceptual art. I hope you're along for the ride!'"

If you go



'Kensington Riots Project' Gallery Show


Saturday and Sunday,

noon-6 p.m.

White Space at the Crane Arts Old School

1417 N. Second St.

Free, 215-232-3203

www.kensingtonriotsproject.tumblr.com