The exhibitions I have previously covered were engaging and groundbreaking in their own ways, but nonetheless took place in older institutions that operate within the limits of established art-viewing practices. This week, I got to experience something truly radical and revolutionary when I visited The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia to see their new show, “A Good Night’s Sleep, pt. II – Urgent Care,” which opened this past Sunday. I saw the show with other members of Swarthmore’s Women of Color Kick Ass on a trip fully funded by the college. Curator Michael Clemmons gave us a tour, occasionally joined by other artists and Executive Director Vashti DuBois. Céline Anderson ’19, one of WOCKA’s board members, helped organize the event.
“I found out about the museum online, and Amal [Sagal ’19, who is also a board member] and I both thought it would be a fun thing for us to do off campus,” said Anderson.
The Colored Girls Museum is much more than a “museum.” Located in a grand yet unassuming 127-year-old three-story Victorian house in the historic neighborhood of Germantown, the home-turned-museum celebrates and honors the memoirs of girls of colors. Everyday objects that relate to the “ordinary, extraordinary colored girl” are accepted, but so too are art pieces created by her, centering her experience.
Artist and designer Monna Morton, for example, submitted a mixed-media painting she created that references Ntozake Shange’s renowned choreopoem, “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf,” specifically the poem titled “graduation nite.” Shange’s piece is a compilation of stories told through poems by women in different colored dresses. Here, “graduation nite” is a coming-of-age poem, told by the Lady in Yellow. Morton captured the elated air that the Lady in Yellow describes her graduation night in the poem, relishing the last experiences of adolescence and looking in anticipation to adulthood. Morton used 45 RPM vinyl records to describe the character’s hair, emphasizing the music and liveliness of her experience. Along with this art piece, Morton submitted a small photograph of herself on her graduation night and co-curated another room titled “Historic Record,” where she and Denys Davis exhibited belongings of their grandmothers, both domestic workers, to honor and reflect on the work that they did.
TCGM is radical not only in terms of content, but also structure and practice. Museums are just now beginning to consider sound as something that can be curated, but few — if any — have explored how our olfactory senses can be activated in exhibitions. “A Good Night’s Sleep, pt. II,” however, purposefully curated the scents of the house in addition to the visual and auditory elements of the show. In the first room of the house, where Morton’s “Lady in Yellow” hangs, Motown and Philadelphia Sound tunes grace your ears. Wafts of lemongrass candles soothe in the curated “Recovery and Healing Suite” (which is also DuBois’ very own bedroom!). Go see, or rather, experience this show for being just that — an all-encompassing experience of sight, sound, and smell.
In addition to the comprehensive sensory experience, the exhibit also thoroughly engages the mind and body. Most rooms showcase not only art, “arty-facts”, and everyday objects, but also books of literature and theory. Appropriately, a copy of Shange’s choreopoem was available in the same room where Morton’s painting hung. These books operate not only as resources, but also as reminders of how much work has already been done by Black scholars and artists.
The show is titled “Urgent Care” because it takes the healing of women of color, specifically Black women, as its focus. While this need to heal is nothing new, it has warranted renewed attention under the Trump presidency. DuBois described the third floor as their version of triage, where individuals that identify as “colored girls” are encouraged to reflect on how and where they need to heal.
“Usually you go to the doctor and they will tell you what’s wrong or what isn’t … We wanted to do something different here; our triage is about self-discovery,” said Dubois on our tour.
On the third floor, an installation titled “Chamber” by artists Joy Ude (who is also a Project Technician and Printer at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia) and Petra Floyd invited women of color to step into a soft, fabric-padded space and enter handmade baskets. Notes from previous visitors hung from the ceiling of “Chamber”, that described their hopes and wishes in regards to the healing process. The soft scent of tobacco candles permeated the air, and a wall of books framed both sides of the door of the room.
The exhibit is an excellent way to expose yourself to new artists and art that centers the Black woman and Black experience. The museum is open on Sundays from 1pm to 5pm, and asks a suggested donation of $10 for admission. Weekday tours are also available by appointment. Go see this!