The most important thing to know about Germantown’s Colored Girls Museum is that you can’t just go in and wander.
And that matters especially for a show like “In Search of the Colored Girl," which attempts to locate the heart, mind, body, and soul of black women, literally and figuratively.
“You can’t just roll up on her," said Vashti Dubois, executive director and founder of the museum. “The issue is that people have just walked around her and done what they wanted to for so long. We want you to know her, but we are about protecting her, too. That’s the only way she will truly be found.”
The by-appointment-only museum that also doubles as Dubois’ home has become quite a fixture in the black women’s arts community. As Dubois and I caught up on what the museum has been doing, including pop-up exhibits at Moore College of Art and Design and a summer camp, we began our tour on the top floor, the final room of the seven-room show. Because that’s where, Dubois says, the colored girls find grace.
This room was curated by Philadelphia mixed-media artist Lavett Ballard, and it features 71 of artist Janet Taylor Pickett’s paper doll dresses affixed to the peaceful sky-blue walls to evoke a sense of child’s play. The scent of roses wafts throughout. There is a bed ― with a comic book touting the new black female Iron Man, among other things ― where, in a perfect world, the colored girl would be free to dream. A photographic collage of the black Madonna by Philadelphia artist Beverly McCutcheon is mystical and spiritual.
“In this room, the colored girl gets to be a child,” said Dubois. “The ordinary, extraordinary colored girl has had so much of her childhood stripped away, that is part of the reason why she’s lost. Here is one of the places where you can find her because she is given the grace to be who she is. There is no denial of any part of her.”
The exhibit asks visitors to be excavators in their search for the colored girl. But the truth is that despite the world’s attempt to erase her ― and in the colored girl’s attempt to erase herself ― she is everywhere.
“One of the reasons we call ourselves the Colored Girls Museum is because we look at ways the colored girl is colored by everybody,” Dubois says. “But we also look at how we take that same Crayola crayon and color each other and color ourselves."
That coloring isn’t without pain. Of the four shows Dubois and fellow curators Michael Clemmons and Ian Friday have produced, “In Search of the Colored Girl” has the most texture and meaning. Each installation or painting could stand alone, and fully comprehending its social, political, and visual beauty would take hours.
But all together, they tell a remarkable story of what it’s like to live in the body of a black girl in America, where your every move is watched. And you can bet someone is standing in the wings ready to pick you apart. The work and/or personal artifacts of at least 50 artists and ordinary colored girls are represented in this show. They include the body-celebrating pottery of socially engaged ceramic artist Yinka Orafidiya that celebrates the beautifully imperfect mold of the black female form, as well as pieces from the art collection of Duafe salon owner Syreeta Scott.
If the third floor of “In Search of the Colored Girl,” is all about grace, the first floor is about the effects of affording black women little to none at all. It’s why we have a need for a Colored Girls Museum in the first place.
An installation by Andrea Walls housed in the far right corner of the living room is a memorial to the more than 75,000 black women missing in the United States. That’s according to data from the nonprofit Black and Missing Foundation, which compiled its statistics from the FBI. Inside the bookcase are black-and-white photos of missing black girls placed next to candles. In some cases, Walls glued replicas of antebellum newspaper clippings that announced rewards for runaway slaves.
“Here we are looking at all of the ways colored girls have gone missing in plain sight,” Dubois said. “Are they runaways? Have they been sex-trafficked? That’s a staggering number of people to not know where they are."
Also in the living room are photographs, self-portraits mostly, from local artists who participated in the Women’s Mobile Museum under the tutelage of South African artist Zanele Muholi.
“You have to see her to document her so we have means of finding her,” Dubois says, her voice starting low and rising to a crescendo fueled with anger as well as a pleading sorrow. “We are really calling our attention to the necessity to document and see ourselves and not rely on anyone else to do it.”
If the soul of a black woman is in her hair, that part was stolen from her the moment the first African women set foot in America in chains. University of the Arts graduate student Victoria Edwards’ exhibit, “The Crown of Queens,” illustrates that to perfection. It starts in the museum’s dining room with black-and-white photographs that are a sampling of the hairstyles African women arrived on the continent wearing. Then you see shorn hair placed on a pillar emblazoned with the auction information of female slaves — height, weight, fertility.
Then you see how this affected the way modern black women deal with their own hair. Edwards prompts visitors to share their feelings about the everyday, annoying questions they are asked about their hair. They range from the seemingly innocuous — “Are you mixed?” — to the straight-up insulting — “You have good hair.”
“Hair defined who we were in very important ways,” Dubois said. “To have that identity striped away, that was a significant loss. This is part of the reason why we often find ourselves getting lost in our hair. Our crowns were taken from us."
The idea for the exhibit was born from a research project the museum undertook with tween girls dreaming of becoming playwrights called the Performing Identities Program. The girls researched the history of black women in Germantown and, although black people’s history runs deep in Philadelphia, it was hard to pinpoint the details of their lives even in black institutions like the black YWCA or the area’s first black private school, the Ivy Leaf School. Dubois said she even worked with graduate school fellows who affirmed how difficult it was to find colored girls’ history. That’s when Friday suggested the museum make the entire theme of the show about searching for the colored girl.
Even the museum’s sole permanent room honoring the washerwoman takes on new meaning; domestic labor is to be respected, but black women are often pigeonholed as being just a one-dimensional type, defined by what we do. There’s also an entire room created by colored boys — co-curators Friday and Clemmons. The centerpiece of this room is Friday’s vintage action figure collection. They are there to represent play as well as strength. It’s a simple acknowledgement that without colored girls, there would be no colored boys.
In Search of the Colored Girl
Through June 16, Colored Girls Museum, 4613 Newhall St., $10-$15, 267-630-4438, www.thecoloredgirlsmuseum.com