A trip to the Colored Girls Museum to interview Vashti DuBois, Founder and Executive Director is exactly what I needed. An environment that my soul craved and longed for, especially in these last few months that I have been in reflection about my life and surroundings. In this journey I have found comfort in spaces where I can be my whole self, as well as be nurtured, embraced, and celebrated. Each step that I took within the museum felt like a kind of homecoming, a visceral experience. Vashti, greeted me at the door with a warmth you receive from a sista you haven’t seen in some time, it was familiar. As I walked into the 127 year old historic, three story Victorian House in Germantown, Philadelphia – faint scents of sage and lavender made its way from the air into my nostrils. I was not engulfed within the aromatic scents, but a different energy swept over me once I took in the full scope of the intentional layout. She (the museum) is a sanctuary, exclusively reflecting on and lifting up Black girls and women for the world to see through our lens to honor, preserve, collect, and present our ordinary and extraordinary stories with the use of paintings, objects, artifacts, site-specific works, and more.
Upon entry I was met by an altar with Keisha Whatley’s painting, Queen, of a Black girl boldly looking outward, back at viewers. Her afro is made up of the sun, moon, water, clouds, and other natural elements. Atop her head sits a majestic elephant and a jeweled tiara floats directly above, alluding to a crowned destiny. Her body is made up of fruits, flowers, and patterns that represent vast symbols. It’s a blend of surrealism, afrofuturism, and traditional portraiture. The vibrant yellow background and three, foot-tall ceramic vessels in the shape of Black women, her guides and protectors, created by the museum’s curator and artist Michael Clemmons that accompany her drew me in for a visual dialogue. The Associate Director Ian Friday was also instrumental in transforming this enclave into a sanctorium.
As Vashti led me into the rooms, each its own theme, I was further moved by the installations and her narration. The museum was conceived for the Colored girl but it is also “for anyone who is ready for a conscious revolution,” reads a quote on the wall from DuBois herself. The current installments are a part of Urgent Care: A Social Care Experience, created to redefine the concept and practice of, well, “urgent care” from triage to aftercare and provide tools for healing. A clipboard with files are hung outside each door, to evoke a sense of a visit to the doctor, a reminder of the importance of routine check ups for our physical, mental, and spiritual selves. “The Colored girl must imagine how her health care could look and feel like if it were her who designed the space,” says Dubois. Habitual homeopathic remedies have also become a part of my own practice, which I have developed with the help of a professional therapist, mediation specialist, and Yoruba priestess. I have only recently learned how essential it is for me and its effectiveness. To remain centered, I realized that psychological safe places are paramount for emotional releases and rejuvenation.
She (the museum) is also prescriptive and curative in the way that visitors are intentionally guided through the joyful life and sometimes sorrowful existence of the Colored girl then prescribes antidotal actions to bring forth restoration. The first level is mainly a nod to everyday Black girl rituals like styling our braids, twists, pom-poms, etc. Artist Nastassja Swift’s felted wool bust, Hair Stylist, is of a little girl whose face is cringed and lips twisted while her hair is being manipulating into a style. I recognized that look from when my sister parted and combed through my kinky strands. We then went upstairs to the second floor to view an ode to the washerwomen, which pays homage to domestic work. It has an iron, ironing board, sewing machine, and clothesline with intimate items and photographs. This presentation is exemplary of the work many Black girls and women were relegated to from the advent of African enslavement throughout the Americas in the 1600s into the late-eighteenth century to early-twentieth century, long after slavery was abolished. Nearby, in what looks like a dressing room, there is a huge armoire (standalone wardrobe closet) and vanity dresser drawer with mirror. A dress on a mannequin near the window grabbed my attention. At a distance it appeared to be the perfect black and white evening gown but with closer inspection of the floral patterns, scenes of enslaved women and men are revealed. Velvet and Toile, was designed by Sara Bunn, a socially conscious fashion and interior designer. The third floor and “recovery suite” has a Prayer Closet reminiscent of my mother’s. However, artist Alisha Garrison, outfits the walls with a mosaic in the shape of a chair and a framed mosaic warrior shield. The tools needed to intercede with the divine and engage in spiritual warfare. There is also a tea set and table of sweets complete with two chairs. A retreat for one or with girlfriends. The room down the hall has herbs for saging, multiple reflective mirrors, meditation books, a plush armchair, and bed with dolls by Lorrie Patrice-Payne and hung straight above is a stained-glass work by Celestine Wilson Hughes which has depictions of little girls.
As we descended the staircase back to the bottom where we first began I couldn’t help but think of the many Black girls and women who would benefit from this reprieve. Vashti shared that many have come alone, with family, friends, and groups. There have also been workshops that explore sisterhood and the importance of coming together. In the near future there will be a portrait series at the museum, where girls will have the opportunity to have their likeness captured by artists and made the central figure of a narrative. This is critical within a society that often tries to push us to the periphery. But Black Girl Magic is real and it is all encompassing and cannot be snuffed out. We rise, thrive, and stay fly despite it all. But our power is most potent when we are aligned with our purpose and fully recharged. We can only come to this when we do some meditation and investigation within ourselves. Vashti’s spirit was also restored in this space, her home. It would not exist otherwise. So she (the museum) is a gift to the Colored girl and the world.
Listen to the interview with Vashti DuBois. Click the link below:
Text and interview by Stephanie A. Johnson-Cunningham, Co Founder and Creative Director of Museum Hue