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Inside Phylicia Ghee’s Story of Remembrance 

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Liminality, a psychological state of flux and shift of being, has weighed heavily on my mind since visiting the Nicholson Project earlier this month. In Phylicia Ghee’s installation of the same name, she channels the fragmented history of midwifery and herbalism into communion with the present. By her hand, a two-room, white-walled gallery became an altar for transfiguration, unencumbered by time. 

Influenced by her mother’s troubled relationship with Western medicine and her journey to find more holistic methods of healing, Ghee always felt pulled toward nature. She grew up watching her grandparents tend to various members of the family and learned of the many caregivers who had come before her. The desire to know more about them, their practices, and potions spurred her interest in plant medicine and African spirituality. Liminality is the container for these intergenerational inquiries, a dreamt space Ghee’s sought to make physical for many years.

 

In the first room, painted the color of soil, you are grounded in her family’s legacy. You see the wash table, a basin filled with rose water, and hear the subtle splashes of a body being cleansed. Perfume bottles hold the signature smells of beloved matriarchs, a small cup of whisky sits as offering.

The second room is a communal endeavor that connects her family to a greater lineage of midwives, herbalists, and root women. Personal objects and refurbished pieces of furniture like the sofa, shears, and doctor’s bag, came from Ghee’s “sister circle” of relatives, collaborators, and friends. Hanging plants cascade from the ceiling shelves of herbs decorate the walls as another soundscape rises and falls mixing oral histories, with the crushing of leaves, beating of drums, and the familiarity of followed footsteps. 

At the room’s center, laying open on a coffee table is an issue of Life Magazine. The feature, a photo essay from 1951 entitled “Nurse Midwife: Maude Callen Eases Pain of Birth, Life, and Death,” is responsible for revealing the obscured practice to mainstream America. Captured by W. Eugene Smith, it follows Maude Callen through her day-to-day as a nurse and midwife in Pineville, S.C. More than an intimate look or a sight of spectacle, it’s a record that speaks to thousands of lives shepherded through trans-Atlantic tradition, by way of necessity. So little was known about these women, or the trials they faced working in the crosshairs of race, poverty, and healthcare in the rural South.

 

Wall-pasted archival images and stories of nurses and midwives, sourced from the Baltimore Afro, not only remind us to capture our own stories as they happen, they reinforce the spirit of agency.

Ghee included these newspaper clippings because they invoke a time when their role in the survival of Black history bled into practicality and served to insulate a home or as an incubation device like the one pictured in Maude’s story. This acute attention to detail permeates the installation, with every object carefully selected for layered contextual effect.  

The sticking point of Liminality is that these women can no longer be ignored. There is no moment where you aren’t forced to reckon with them. There is no reality where you don’t leave more curious than you came, where you don’t stop to acknowledge your own ancestry and wonder about the women who were a part of it. In this womb of liminal space, Ghee elevates the concept of assemblage into a multi-sensory encounter where the frayed ends of a narrative are mended by the salve of contemplation and continuity. 

 

Phylicia Ghee’s Liminality: A Story of Remembrance
is up through January 28, 2023
The Nicholson Project
2310 Nicholson St SE
Washington, DC20020
Gallery Hours: Saturdays, 11-4

The Nicholson Project is a paid artist residency program and neighborhood garden in Ward 7’s Fairlawn neighborhood. Our mission is to support, provide opportunities, engage, and amplify artists and creatives from our community and the local artist community—particularly artists of color and those from Ward 7 and 8—while engaging our neighbors through community-based programming. Our vision is to serve as a cultural hub and community anchor celebrating Ward 7’s authentic identity, while infusing new vibrancy into Southeast DC. We hope to inspire others to use similar non-traditional arts and community-centered projects as a pathway toward stronger, more vibrant communities.

Phylicia was an artist-in-residence at The Nicholson Project from August 24 – November 14, 2022.

More about the artist: Phylicia Ghee is an interdisciplinary artist working in photography, performance, video, textiles, mixed media, installation, and painting. Her artwork documents transition, and explores healing, ritual, ceremony, and personal rites of passage. Taught by her Grandfather at an early age, Ghee is interested in the intersection between the physical and the spiritual.

She has exhibited widely including exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Art, The Margulies Collection at the Warehouse (Miami), Studio Arts College International (Florence, Italy), and The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, amongst others. Most recently, Ghee exhibited and performed at Art on the Vine (Martha’s Vineyard), at Young Collectors Contemporary (Memphis, TN), The Walters Art Museum, and The African American Museum (Philadelphia, PA). She was a 2019 and 2020 Finalist for the Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize, and in 2020, she was named a Baker Artist Award Finalist, and a Pratt>FORWARD Fellow. Ghee received recognition from Maryland’s First Lady Yumi Hogan and the Maryland Behavioral Health Administration for her art and activism in raising awareness on issues surrounding mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorder.

 

Photos courtesy of the artist and The Nicholson Project

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