In Celebration of the Ordinary Extraordinary Colored Girl: The Colored Girls Museum

Posted by: A. M. Weaver


The Colored Girls Museum is a three-story home in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA.  You enter the museum through a narrow foyer then to your right is the spacious front living room, laden with samples of work that vary in size and color by a cross-section of more than 20 colored girls represented in the museum.  There are ceramic works, color drenched paper theatres by Barbara Bullock, jeweled and collaged works on paper, of particular note is a fan by Ife Nii Owoo, and photography by Denise Allen.  Near the window on the eastern side of the room are elongated brown and tan dolls with elaborate headdresses by Lorrie Payne, more of which are in the upstairs bedroom.  Overall the featured artwork is interspersed with furniture and the accoutrements of a home well loved.  The house exudes tranquility laced with excitement as one travels from room to room not knowing quite what to expect.  Each room houses a treasure trove of memories, ideas and the vibrancy of colored girls/women’s dreams.

Vashti DuBois is the proprietor of the house and the conceptual visionary of the Colored Girls Museum.  She has had many incarnations as a leader for causes that affect women.  Trained in theatre, DuBois studied theatre at Wesleyan University where she ultimately received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s Studies.  Born in Brooklyn, she has lived in Philadelphia for fourteen years.

As a young woman, DuBois was responsible for the creation of the theatre company Mumbo Jumbo, which thrived in the city of New York between 1985 and 1988.  From the late 1980s to the present, she has directed innumerable one-woman shows including productions such as “My Name is Sam Johnson” by Cymande Lewis and “Dirty Jokes” featuring Jennifer Blaine, which was presented at the Annenberg Theatre last year. Theatre is a mainstay in the life of Vashti DuBois and was, in part, the impetus for creating the Colored Girls Museum.

According to DuBois, the museum was conceived as a theatre and a place of healing, where artists are encouraged to create spaces that open possibilities for creative expression and serve as repositories of memory.  “Colored Girls have many stories and the museum uses a multifaceted platform to [represent those stories]…”  These memories extend from the distant past to the present.  DuBois has been holding art salons for more than twenty years, inspired by her studies of the art and literary salons that propagated during the Harlem Renaissance.  Part Museum and part salon series, the Colored Girls Museum serves as a place to celebrate the “ordinary extraordinary colored girl”.

What women of color do in this world is extraordinary; the museum serves as an arena to explore and credit the power and beauty of women of color and to take a look at their unique worldviews.  “They are the caretakers of everyone, DuBois states….. Just think, what would happen to the world, if all the colored girls disappeared?”

The museum is also a place for men who find that the lives and contributions of black women are important and imperative to explore as well. Michael Clemmons serves as the first curator of the Colored Girls Museum and also has ceramic works featured in the show; his work focuses on the visage and presence of black women. . Ian Friday is the Associate Director of the museum. In addition to installations and works by women, there is a Colored Boy’s room.  DuBois’s son agreed to have his room altered via the works of cartoonist Calyn Pickens Rich and a mural by Betsey Casañas   Empathetic to black women’s life stories, these men actively participate in the creation of work or spaces that contribute to the actualization of the museum’s mission.

Located in a historic Germantown Victorian twin home on Newhall Street, DuBois wanted to create a place that welcomes those who need respite.  It is a space where black women artists have been invited to transform the space and embodied in the art work mounted on the walls and altered rooms are stories from the past and contemporary affirmations.

One installation by Denys Davis and Monna Morton is particularly striking and very conscientiously arranged.  The designer/artist team altered a second floor bedroom into a washerwoman’s space, recalling a time from slavery to the recent past when many black women labored as domestics. The airy installation infused with symbols of domesticity is replete with the first electric iron and a wooden ironing board; adjacent to the ironing board is a metal tub with a wooden washboard. Suspended above these objects are sheets and stocking on a cotton clothesline.   A 90 plus year old hand made church dress owned by Monna Morton’s grandmother, who was a homemaker, hangs on the northern wall accompanied by two hats – one with an elaborate pink satin ribbon.  Underneath this display are two shelves laden with an assortment of objects:  a money jar, several pocket books and an open Bible with a pair of reading glasses.  This wall represents how Sunday and the comfort of attending church services was the only respite from the back breaking labor of taking care of other people’s homes.  Opposite this wall is a golden antique settee in front of a chalkboard with various words and their definitions that relate to domestic employment.

In the upper room as it is called, a nomenclature used to describe a place of prayer and meditation, is the unique stained glass work of Celestine Wilson Hughes.  Also sharing the space is an installation with blue walls and white clouds by mystery writer and poet Barbara Neely that relates to her vision of heaven.

A new addition to the original group of women assembled for the museum’s displays is the work of Natalie Erin Brown.  She created an installation featuring burnished wood drawings, one of which is a nearly life sized rendition of a black male figure in a hoodie – a tribute to Trayvon Martin illuminated with red and white lit candles.

Quilts as well as dolls abound, including the works of Toni Kersey, Betty Leacraft, Lorrie Payne and Ronah Harris.  The work of established artists active in the Philadelphia art community converge or are presented alongside the work of emerging artists such as Betsy Casañas, Alicia M. Garrison and Calyn Pickens Rich.

Having worked at the North Philadelphia’s Girls Center from 2002 to 2004, Vashti DuBois was actively engaged in designing programs that would encourage and create opportunities for young black women.  DuBois diligently worked on a project to reconfigure the warehouse space occupied by The Girls Center, and she used art to do it.  The project led by Betsy Casañas was miraculously completed in six weeks.  Convinced of the transformative power of art via the success of this project and her work with the Leeway Foundation, DuBois was encouraged to seek other opportunities to explore the potentiality and creative talents of black women.  After a life altering experience, she decided to recreate her life and expand her vision for black women by opening her home to artists to imprint it with their stories.

Vashti DuBois has big plans for the Colored Girls Museum.  Not only does she intend to invite a whole new litany of women artists to install their works on site, but she hopes to bring the idea to other cities.  Residents would invite their local and regional female artists to create their own museum.

When you leave the Colored Girls Museum after taking in all it has to offer, you are filled with an array of emotions and left feeling joyous and uplifted.  It is truly a wonder to experience with its array of color and form in multiple manifestations.

Submitted April 12, 2016

Image courtesy of The Colored Girls Museum

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