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Philly’s Museum of Black Joy aims to counterprogram traumatizing narratives about Black life

According to curator Andrea Walls, Black joy is ‘a very particular and specific salvation’

Andrea "Philly" Walls, the artist and curator behind the Museum of Black Joy. Walls stands in front her work at 915 Spring Garden St., currently featured in the public art exhibition 'Roadmap to Joy.' Friday, July 23, 2021.
Andrea "Philly" Walls, the artist and curator behind the Museum of Black Joy. Walls stands in front her work at 915 Spring Garden St., currently featured in the public art exhibition 'Roadmap to Joy.' Friday, July 23, 2021.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

There’s Black joy that Andrea “Philly” Walls sees in common interactions. She sees it when girls braid hair on the porch, she explained, or in “a father reaching out for his daughter’s hand to cross the street on the way to school.”

Capturing these moments of everyday life became the start of the Museum of Black Joy, a digital museum that’s devoted to art on Black happiness.

“I grew up in Cobbs Creek, in Philly, in West Philly in the ’60s and ’70s. And I just had so many fond memories of playing double Dutch and tag and just running freely in our bones in the streets, in relative safety,” said Walls, 57.

“I started to realize that the space was getting smaller and smaller through gentrification,” she continued. “I just got this sense that these things that I have counted on are going to be disappearing or changing in a very profound way. So I felt like I just really needed to start documenting these things before they disappear.”

Walls began by posting her photographs on her blog every day in January 2020, showing slices of Black joy at places like Southwest Philadelphia’s Bartram’s Garden, the Kensington pilates studio Corelove-Culture, and the double Dutch pop-up meet-up Philly Girls Jump.

At the start of the pandemic, she had to pivot away from daily photography, but now she’s expanding the museum. With the support of Leeway Foundation and the Chronicling Resistance Activist/Curator Fellowship, among other grants and honors, Walls is taking on a number of interconnected projects about Black joy, including documenting and archiving work on the topic, growing the museum, and also collaborative in-person exhibitions across Philly this summer and fall.

Her focus on joy is a response the depictions of Black folk that flow throughout our media systems.

“It’s on our TV programs, it’s in the news, it’s in so much of social media, where we have all taken in live-action murders. With or without our consent, sometimes they just start playing,” Walls said.

“I was really looking for a way to make art that doesn’t ignore any of these stories, but is not a very traumatizing visual narrative — as just kind of counterprogramming,” she said. “I’m definitely not trying to refute real stories of people who are really working against injustice, and the real traumas that we have to address.”

Through a SheaMoisture/Good Mirrors Emerging Visionary grant, Walls is planning to commission work from other artists and place free installations in community spaces, like schools and corner stores, in September. Right now, the museum’s site is currently showing the exhibition Dimensions of Black Joy, a series of film collages set to gospel music and poetry.

For Walls, Black joy appears in spite of so much. She gave examples: “that capacity to be bound, and yet free,” or living with “chronic exhaustion, and yet something in your spirit allows you to sing ‘[I Don’t Feel] No Ways Tired,’ ” or “experiencing all of this stress and tension from history and contemporary moment, and yet to dance.”

A lot of Black joy for Walls, lives in those “and yets.” The Inquirer spoke to the artist-curator about her vision of Black joy and what it’s shown her. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

You mentioned that you’re working on what you call Black joy. What do you call Black joy?

It’s an emergence story. Because for me, it’s so connected to the grief and the historical context. And it’s Black joy, separate from just joy, because of the Middle Passage, because of the creation of Blackness through white supremacy. This most creative force that I know, which is able to re-imagine your history, experience, bodily suffering, and still dance, and still sing.

It’s a very particular and specific salvation. It’s for me about endurance, possibility, creativity, grace, and a supreme kindness. Because rather than retrofit all of that experience into something that creates a new kind of tyranny, it creates something that could really lift this whole country out of everything, if it was allowed to.

The process of intentionally and consistently looking for, and collecting, and making work around Black joy — what has that done for you?

It really changes everything, you know, because what we focus on grows. So when you’re looking for something, you find it, in the expected and the unexpected places.

It also helps set an intention for a day that makes me less vulnerable to the things that I’m not expecting that kind of infiltrate my life, because they’re happening in social media, or people are texting [about] what’s going on in the city around the MOVE family and Penn absconding with the bones of family members. … It can be an anchor when you just were trying to get up and like, do something with your family, and then this comes pushing in.

It’s been good to have this intention to focus on.

What does a healthy stream of information about Black life look like to you?

For me, it’s kind of connected to my own nostalgia. My friend’s kid was like, ‘You were born in the 1900s?!’ It sounded so funny. I was like, ‘Yeah, I was.’ When our identity was based on who we were, where we went, who we were in community with. And our daily experience wasn’t so fully contested by media streams.

It’s very difficult for me, having been raised at a time where, if something happened to someone in your community, you knew how to activate and to provide resources. Sometimes somebody needed shoes to go to school. Sometimes, somebody died, [and someone] came around and took up the collection. The community could take care of its members.

But now that our community has been so enlarged by social media, I’ve been overwhelmed by, I think, ‘Oh, I gotta do something to help this one.’ You know, it’s Cincinnati, it’s Oakland, it’s Ferguson, it’s Louisville ...

So I feel like what is healthy is to really build in our microcommunities more personally. And I honestly don’t have answers, because I don’t really know how to respond to all of these digital moments. My sense is it felt less debilitating when things were more personal.