Installation photo of Liminality: A Story of Remembrance by Phylicia Ghee
Every aspect of Phylicia Ghee’s art is considered, each choice made with purposeful attention, everything done with the care of a sacred act. There is no accident, and nothing is arbitrary.
Nowhere is this clearer than with Liminality: A Story of Remembrance, her recent exhibition at the Nicholson Project in Washington D.C.
The product of a three-month residency, the project’s press release describes the culminating installation as “an ode to the self taught herbalists, midwives and root women whose stories are shrouded in the mysteries of Phylicia’s personal family history and the history of this country.”
A succinct description of an extraordinary undertaking, one in which Phylicia entirely transforms two conventionally white-walled gallery rooms into sacred sanctuaries.
Though physically built over a three-month period, the exhibition had been years in the making.
“It started with a dream 10 years ago,” says Phylicia.
“I had always been drawn to midwifery, herbalism, and other healing modalities. I knew there were women in my lineage involved in these practices. Then I dreamed of a space where I could sit with them.”
The Nicholson Project became that space.
“It was perfect, because it already felt like a home. It had been a home. With the plaster walls, even the molding … it had this sense of history about it.”
As soon as she got the residency, things began to happen.
“Right away, pieces for the rooms began finding me,” she says. “A year before my residency began, my grandfather and I saw a Victorian chair just sitting there at a gas station. I bought it for $30, threw it in the truck and took it home.”
And so it went: an antique sofa here, a secretary cabinet there, each object emerging as if conjured from her dream of a decade before.
Once the residency began, Phylicia brought a staggering attention to detail to her process. Her checklist was enormous: from the layers of paint on the walls in nuanced colors (not just black, but black with brown – grounding like earth, warm like skin), to the finding exactly the right items to convey meaning (mining the archives at the AFRO News to find just the right articles to paper the archway), to creating the perfect audioscape for the exhibition (sorghum blowing in the wind; the sound of floors creaking; a fetal heartbeat of her niece, still in the womb).
In the depth of its consideration and embodiment, Liminality: A Story of Remembrance is more than just art. It is a monumental prayer to and a blessing from the ancestors.
Left to right, installation photos of Liminality: A Story of Remembrance by Phylicia Ghee & Alanna Reeves
And not just for Phylicia.
Having learned of the exhibition, a Black midwife from Mississippi, Tanya Smith-Johnson, flew to D.C. to see it on its final day. She told Phylicia she’d be back the next day with a colleague, so Phylicia agreed to open the gallery for another day. The next morning, she opened the door and not one but 5 Black midwives entered the space, stopping, rapt, before the wall of portraits of their spiritual forebears. Following her visit with Tanya the previous day, Ebony Marcelle, a local midwife, brought 12 more Black midwives to see the exhibition.
Time collapsed for Phylicia, as if the spirits of those on her gallery walls were made manifest in the bodies of these midwives.
Just before they were ready to leave, Ebony moved to the basin where Phylicia had performed a weekly rosewater ritual and she prayed while washing the hands of a new midwife with the rose water. One by one each of the midwives offered prayers and cleansing for this new midwife at the washtable. After offering her prayers, Phylicia gave a rose to each visitor on her way out – these women who seemed to have been called by, or to, this ancestral space.
“I’d been trying to figure out how to end something so sacred, and return it to my heartspace.”
With this final magical moment, she knew the ancestors had delivered it.
Photo of Phylicia Ghee by Beverly Price