Holly Otterbein on Carnivolution and the Ellen Tiberino Museum

Holly Otterbein
Favorite Spot: Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum, which is the home of Carnivolution
Neighborhood: Powelton Village
Address: 3819 Hamilton Street

I am: A city government reporter at the Daily News and WHYY, as part of a collaboration between the two media companies
Years in Philly: Almost 6 years
Current home: Southwark


My Love Note:

I stumbled across my favorite place five years ago. I had recently moved to Philadelphia after living in a series of small towns that moved as slowly as starfish. Despite the fact that I desperately needed something different, I didn’t love Philly yet. I just liked it.

I was interning at the Philadelphia City Paper, and my editor asked me to cover an event called “Carnivolution” in West Philadelphia. She said it would feature live music, visual art and dance, and I took that to mean it would be a run-of-the-mill cabaret.

I was wrong. It was a freak’s show. Actually, it was a freak’s freak show.

It went down at an artists’ compound that includes the Ellen Powell Tiberino Memorial Museum, several buildings and a massive, conjoined backyard, which are all maintained by the Tiberino family. Ellen Powell, who died in 1992, was the city’s most famous African-American female artist. Her devoted survivors include artist-husband Joe, and artist-children Raphael, Gabriel, Ellen and Latif.

The family is legendary. To this day, people refer to Ellen Powell as a “matriarch,” and Joe is never anything but a “patriarch.”

The compound is a maximalistic wonderland. Inside, every inch is covered with paintings, sculptures, animal busts and other treasures by various family members. Outside, their trippy, crowded murals depict Martin Luther King, Mayor Nutter, Louis Armstrong and dozens of other faces.

At Carnivolution, which is still held here nearly every month, this hectic scene grew even wilder. The buildings’ doors stayed open, while young men breathed fire outside. Half-naked women did burlesque. An old man served vodka and clams, while a clown named Jelly Boy, who said he had an “upside-down frown turned upside down,” sung into a microphone.

To top it off, giant, eerie puppets, which seemed to have landed here from a parallel universe’s Sesame Street, danced onstage.

It was all slightly unsettling, but in a good way. It was the underbelly I was looking for. It was weird Philly, and once I started looking, I saw weird Philly everywhere.

Weird Philly is what made me go from merely liking this city to falling deeply in love with it.

Throughout college, I went to Carnivolution all the time. I haven’t been back as often in recent years, but I still see weird Philly. Nowadays, I see it in my neighbors and friends. I see it in places like city government, which I get to report on for a living.

I see it in eccentric, political families like the Streets and the Rizzos, who remind me a little of eccentric, artistic families like the Tiberinos.

The cheesy bumper stickers are right: Normal is boring. And Philly is anything but.

Posted on by Emma Fried-Cassorla in West Philly Leave a comment

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