At The 'Museum Of Black Joy,' It's The Everyday Moments That Go On Display
The first words greeting visitors to the digital Museum of Black Joy are simple and affirmative:
"I see you. You are beautiful."
Before curator and creator Andrea Walls started exploring photography, she was a Pushcart Prize nominated poet. Clad in a red flat cap and a black V-neck shirt, the 57-year-old spoke to NPR from her combination garage and studio in Philadelphia, where she launched this "borderless exhibition" on the first day of a terrible year, January 2020. The news was filled with rancor, she remembers. Stories of strife and animosity dominated headlines and social media. Many of those stories were about violence directed against minorities and people of color.
"It was really starting to impact my emotional self, and became so psychically overwhelming," she says. "So I just saw the power of shifting the lens, making a conscious decision to pay attention to the joy."
Every day, she decided, she would post images of Black people reflective of her own experience: A serious girl looking for books in a library, a beaming senior citizen pumping her first in a Black Power salute, a couple chatting over milkshakes at an outside dinette.
"And I felt, all right, well, this is what I can do," she recalls. "I can show daily images of what I'm calling Black joy, which is just ordinary moments of grace and kindness and non-traumatic breath. I started it as a daily practice." She paused. "I got 96 days before the pandemic closed everything down."
Right now, the museum features only Walls' own photography but she hopes to change that soon, with the help of funding from the Leeway Foundation and a grant from a haircare company supporting Black women-identified artists. On her website, Walls credits inspirations and collaborators ranging from Kleaver Cruz's The Black Joy Project to Bettina Love, the professor and author of We Want to Do More Than Survive. But Walls sees the Museum of Black Joy as a inheritor of the Black Arts Movement. She remembers soaking up the work of Ntozake Shange, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, nationally famous local poets when Walls was coming of age in the 1980s.
"In Philadelphia, you know, you could just be at a restaurant and sit down next to [Ntozake Shange] and ask if you can buy her a cup of coffee," Walls remembers, her face brightening at the memory. "There was just so much grace among that generation of poets and they always greeted you with 'sister' or 'brother.' They were just really available in every sense of the word. And so I think what I'm trying to do with this museum is to kind of embody some of that generosity that was shared with me."
In the darkest days of the pandemic and during last summer's intense protests against police brutality and racism, Walls says The Museum of Black Joy became a source of healing. "My day is organized around thinking about how can I make more visual joy available," she says.
Walls never studied photography until she took part in the Women's Mobile Museum project in 2018, working with the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and South African photojournalist Zanele Muholi. The resonances between writing and visual art, she says, came as a welcome surprise.
"As a poet, I always pay attention to a small detail or a fleeting feeling," she says. "Of joy or despair or whatever it is, just, the way your life and imagination crescendos, depending on the mood, the time of day, the light, the music in the background, your heartbreak, and how all of those things are layered upon one another."
Walls has been diving deeply into local archives recently to search for more images of Black joy. "And try to extract stories of joy from what can be kind of hostile places," she says. "The way they've arranged the history of black people in America — it hasn't centered joy. But we've always lived it."
Online traffic to the Museum of Black Joy has soared since it was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer — almost 2000%, Walls says. And as much as the Museum of Black Joy has served as a virtual neighborhood of sorts, Walls says she's currently seeking non-traditional physical spaces to exhibit the work in real life. Helping to flood the cultural conversation with Black joy, she says, is an artists' approach to reverse engineer anti-Black racism.
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