(Born in Philadelphia, based in New York)
Photographer and scholar
Black Women and Work
Photographic dibond prints, scaffolding, fabric prints, clothesline, and clothespins
Artist and photography historian Deborah Willis grew up in North Philadelphia, several blocks away from the Village of Arts and Humanities, across Broad Street, in a section of the neighborhood also known as “the Village.” Her father, Thomas, was a police officer and installed wallpaper, and her mother, Ruth, attended Apex Beauty School. Together they also operated a corner store. Willis, who graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts), has become the leading scholar and curator of Black photography. She has earned numerous honors and distinctions, including a MacArthur Genius award. For Staying Power, Willis aimed to “reflect on joy, loss, love, and storytelling – certainly the continuum of my work.”
She adds, “I have thought about the notion of staying, about the transience of this country, how leaving is often synonymous with upward mobility. This is particularly evident in Black communities where this American tug of war between community versus mobility is exacerbated, where the ‘price of the ticket’ as James Baldwin wrote, for thriving Black communities was redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and the perception of powerlessness. [This is] precisely why the foundation of this exhibition has everything to do with the power of those who stayed, and in particular, Black women whose power has never been transient, has never left, always stayed, because the basis of that power is love.”
For her site-specific Staying Power project, Black Women and Work, Willis collaborated with local photographer Naomieh Jovin on a series of portraits of women entrepreneurs in North Philadelphia: fashion designer Lucreatia “Cree” Russell, baker Tamyra Tucker, entrepreneur and artist Aisha Chamblis, and activist and fiber artist Ms. Nandi Muhammed. For each portrait, taken during the COVID-19 pandemic, Willis joined the women by Zoom, interviewed them alongside Staying Power project manager Jeanette Lloyd, and then worked with Jovin on directing portraits of the women’s work and home spaces. Willis also included images she previously took while researching for the 2019 Rendering Justice exhibition with Mural Arts Philadelphia and the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Installed as monumental prints on scaffolding adjacent to the Village’s Ile Ife Park, the project also includes images and a clothesline significant to the artist’s childhood and family, the Village, and North Philadelphia.
Researching and photographing for Staying Power, Black Women and Work allowed me to reflect on joy, loss, love, and storytelling—certainly the continuum of my work. While working on this project I had the opportunity to make these portraits of women from the area with photographer Naomieh Jovin, who held a camera while I duetted her through FaceTime. I have thought about the notion of staying, about the transience of this country, how leaving is often synonymous with upward mobility. This is particularly evident in Black communities where this American tug of war between community versus mobility is exacerbated, where the “price of the ticket,” as James Baldwin wrote, for thriving Black communities was redlining, urban renewal, gentrification, and the perception of powerlessness.
[This is] precisely why the foundation of this exhibition has everything to do with the power of those who stayed, and in particular, Black women whose power has never been transient, has never left, always stayed, because the basis of that power is love. But if one does not understand that basis, that power, that permanence, then what one gets in terms of representation . . . a sidewalk altar in memoriam of a young Black person killed in the neighborhood, a group of women that worked their craft from their “hearts and minds” because they worked jobs outside the 9 to 5 spectrum. Photographs of rowhouses include the interiority of women who reinvest in the Village community, such as fashion designer and beauty maven Lucreatia “Cree” Russell; baker and artist Tamyra Tucker; entrepreneur and performance artist Aisha Chamblis, who also teaches dance to children; and activist and fiber artist Ms. Nandi Jackson, the sage of the community who offers Black history lessons to the children. Faith Bartley’s images focus on transforming identities. Faith is an advocate for reform and helping women in reentry. I share these stories to note the respect these women showed and shared with me, which also reminded me that staying power is rooted in love.
Deborah Willis was born in Philadelphia and is currently based in New York, where she is the university professor and chair of the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. Willis is the author of The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship and Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present; she is co-author of The Black Female Body: A Photographic History, Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery (NAACP Image Award winner), and Michelle Obama: The First Lady in Photographs (NAACP Image Award winner). Willis’s curated exhibitions include Framing Moments at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits at the International Center of Photography, and Framing Beauty: Intimate Moments at Indiana University. Since 2006 she has co-organized Black Portraiture[s], thematic conferences exploring imaging the Black body in art, in Paris, Florence, Johannesburg, Cambridge (MA), and New York. She has appeared in and consulted on media projects including documentary films such as Through a Lens Darkly and Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia project.