New Philly museum seeks to help women break through barriers to become fine artists

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Andrea Walls is a digital artist who usually makes collages out of historic images, pre-existing pictures taken by other people. She had never taken her own pictures until the Women’s Mobile Museum project put a camera in her hand in February and told her she was going to have a show in just six months.

“It was overwhelming. I didn’t take a good picture until June,” she said. “So it was frightening.”

Walls has been thinking a lot about the movement of African-Americans throughout history — on the ships of the Middle Passage slave trade routes and through the forests of the Underground Railroad — and the traces they left in their wake. Her photos have no people in them, but are richly infused by the ghostly presence of people who have traveled though the scene: a dress floating in a river, shoes discarded along a path.

“It’s abstract and conceptual,” said Walls. “I hope the message comes through.”

The Women’s Mobile Museum is a year-long artist residency and exhibition project of the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (PPAC). It selected ten emerging artists who had little to no access to art training, and gave them resources and opportunities to develop as fine-art photographers.

The artists were chosen after brief interviews to determine their desire to make art and their conditions – often economic — that prevent them from getting a formal arts education. The PPAC did not consider anyone’s portfolio, if they had one.

“It’s about an arts culture that has really made it felt that all people are not welcome,” said project director Lori Waselchuk. “Institutions have, for a long time, not sought out voices that aren’t from the western artistic traditions. The women have described very clearly that they have not felt welcome in the major arts institutions.”

Waselchuk came up with the idea of the Women’s Mobile Museum when she approached South African artist Zanele Muholi to do a residency at PPAC. She said Muholi – a sought-after artist whose self-portraiture has been acquired by MOMA, the Guggenheim, and the Tate in London — would only agree to the residency if it could benefit other women who are trying to break into the fine art field.

“We talked about it for several hours over the phone, and came up with the basis of the proposal,” said Waselchuk. The program not only helped the women to articulate their creative voice, but put them in front of curators and directors at the city’s major art institutions to introduce them to the larger art world.

During the residency, seven of the ten artists participated in the Barnes Foundation’s “Let’s Connect” exhibition with help from PPAC.

Giving opportunities and resources to women toward an art career was just the first half of the Women’s Mobile Museum; the second was to put their work in front of people who have little access to art. The “mobile” part of the museum is a movable feast of home-grown photography traveling into Philadelphia neighborhoods that are “art deserts.”

The first stop of the six-month exhibition tour is the Boys and Girls Club in Juniata Park. The venue was coordinated by Sister Elaine George of the Juniata Action Committee. She says there are no art programs in that neighborhood.

“My hope is, because it’s free, that people will come who cannot afford to go to a museum,” she said. “Because it’s in the neighborhood, people who don’t have access to transportation will come to the museum. Because of the different hours of the exhibit, I’m hoping people who are working during the day will have time to come.”

George also arranged an audio tour of the exhibition, featuring the voices of the 10 artists talking about their work, to give blind visitors access to the work.

The exhibition next travels to the Point Breeze neighborhood. Then, it will land in one of Philadelphia’s major art museums – the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Beginning in January, it will take over the PPAC gallery space in Kensington.

Another artist in the Women’s Mobile Museum, Danielle Morris, is an aspiring fine-art photographer.

“I had a Barbie camera as a kid,” she said. “Then I did disposable cameras in middle school.”

She started taking photography seriously two years ago when she got herself a real camera. She describes herself as self-taught. For the Women’s Mobile Museum, she made a series of moody, contemplative pictures about the West Philadelphia house where she has lived her whole life.

One of her pictures is of herself, bent over with her head in a dimly lit kitchen sink, surrounded by combs and bottles of hair products. She’s washing her hair.

“This image is the image that most black women find so familiar. This is how every black girl in American has had their hair washed since they were a child,” she said. “Some people that have come in here that are black women, and looked at these photos and said, ‘Wow, that looks familiar!’ That’s what this is about.”

Morris wants to make art that taps into the “collective black memory.”

Muholi included three of her own self-portraits to the show, made in Philadelphia during the residency.

After the six-month tour of the Women’s Mobile Museum, Waselchuk says the PPAC will continue to help the 10 artists pursue the life of an artist, with assistance digging up opportunities, writing grants, and publicizing work.

“There’s more than a strong chance the women will continue as a collective,” she said.

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