Over 700 of these sculptures were found on a curbside in an African-American neighborhood of Philadelphia; nothing is known about their creator. They appear to be related to the Nkisi fetishes (power objects) of the Kongo people of Congo and Zaire and to voodoo fetishes from Cuba and Haiti, suggesting that they may have been ritual objects for use in an underground African-American religion. They may have been created to address individuals’ specific problems, such as heart disease in the caste of the smallest, heart-shaped sculpture. Though the contents of these works distinguishes them, the use of salvaged materials for sculpture has been a widespread phenomenon in contemporary art.
Philadelphia Wireman Untitled, around 1967–75 Collection of the Akron Art Museum One dark night in 1982 an artist was driving through the streets of Philadelphia when his headlights caught a glittery lump of metallic objects spilling onto the street from decaying cardboard cartons. Stopping his car, he picked up one of the objects and realized it was a piece of sculpture. Thus was the work of the sculptor now known as the Philadelphia Wireman discovered. Approximately 625 pieces ranging in height from one inch to over two feet were rescued from oblivion. Their acquisition by numerous art professionals and several museums suggests that others share their finder's belief that these objects should be considered artworks. The Wireman's sculptures are accumulations of urban detritus—from small vials of over-the-counter medicines and crumpled radio antennas to soap wrappers and even a museum-admission button—compressed inside wire that has been wrapped around them to form anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and other metaphorical forms. To persons with art-school training these works are reminiscent of the scavenger tradition of American folk art and the found-object aesthetic of twentieth-century European artists like Kurt Schwitters and Pablo Picasso. Whether their maker, whose identity remains a mystery, was aware of these traditions is unknown, but several other assumptions can be made about the artist. Because great pressure was required to bend the heavy wire, yet few tool marks are present, their creator is presumed to have been male. Given the volume of work and the failure of efforts to locate the artist, it is assumed that the works were discarded because of his death. They were found in one of Philadelphia's oldest, continually black neighborhoods, suggesting that their maker was African American. Another argument for African roots is the works' resemblance to minkisi (things that do things). These are power objects that were made by the Kongo people of Central Africa, who today inhabit the Republic of Congo, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.1 Kongo believed that these charms, which often involved binding or wrapping found objects (medicines), were inhabited by spirits with powers for healing and other phenomena. Just as each piece by the Wireman is individual, so each charm was made for a specific situation and person. The Wireman's works seem to have a distinct front, top, and back, but none stand readily on their own; they may have been intended to hang or to be handled in a ritual rather than to be on permanent display. Over the past few decades, there has been a spread of underground, African-based religions in American urban centers including Philadelphia.2 Art dealer and scholar John Ollman assumes that the Wireman was a "medicine man or shaman within the old black community. . . . Somebody came to the Wireman to be healed, or for some similar purpose, and . . . he would create a piece specific to that individual.”3 If this was the case, the problems addressed were often universal: about one-tenth of the sculptures contain money; several have hypodermic needles; and the smallest sculpture in the museum's collection resembles a human heart. Some people are skeptical about the origin of these sculptures, finding them too artful and too perfect a link between modernist aesthetics and folk and ethnographic traditions. Others see them as just so much rubbish. There will probably never be any confirmation of the Wireman's intentions and sincerity. His works, like the many anonymous pieces that dominate the first millennium of art, will have to rely on their own aesthetic worth, and perhaps magical power, to attract viewers. - Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001 1. The relationship to minkisi has been suggested by art dealers John Ollman and Randall Morris and by African art specialist Robert Farris Thompson. For information on minkisi, see Thompson, 88–89; Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy (New York: Vintage Books, 1983), passim; and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, “The Face of Astonishment and Power: Kongo Minkisi and the Art of Renée Stout,” exh. brochure, (Washington D.C. :Smithsonian Institution, 1993). 2. This information was provided by Fred Smith, Professor of Art, Kent State University, on March 23, 1993. 3. Quoted in McGonigal, 52. Jarmusch, Ann. "Mysterious Stranger." ARTnews 85 (September 1986): 166. McGonigal, Mike. "Psychic Magnets: Ruminations on the Philadelphia Wireman and the Nature of the Fetish Object." Raw Vision 5 (winter 1991/92): 48–51. Thompson, Robert Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York and Munich: Museum for African Art and Prestel, 1993, 88–89.