This season, an exciting, interactive and inclusive museum is open in Denver. The Museum for Black Girls is the brain-child of Charlie Billingsley, a Denver native who’s working to celebrate the “journeys, stories, and beauty of Black women.” The exhibit is a pop-up event that will be open through the end of April.
The Museum for Black Girls is returning to Denver as part of Black History Month after existing in several different pop-up locations in the past. Billingsley, who specializes in fashion photography, said that as Black women, “there’s a lot of times when our voices aren’t heard, or we’re not in a lot of spaces where we feel seen or celebrated or accepted.”
She made the space specifically for “girls like that — for girls who want to be okay with wearing the hair that just grows out of their head and want to be okay with being awkward, or just a place where they can just be.” To her, the museum is that place. Flowers around the building tie into Billingsley’s belief that “Black girls are blooming right now and standing in their power…I like to call it a place where you come in with love and you leave with love,” she said. “So, we’re giving all Black girls their flowers.”
The museum is an interactive platform featuring the artwork of local Black women artists, including Billingsley herself. As a Denver-based creative, she had struggled in the past with traditional gallery-style art spaces. Wanting to create something more interactive and experience-based, her museum was born. Among her favorite pieces is “Grandma’s Kitchen,” one of her own where she recreated a nostalgic room from her childhood. “I can remember sitting in the chair in the kitchen and getting your hair done,” she said. “We didn’t have curling irons, just the pressing combs you heat on the stove….there were so many women that came into the exhibit that I didn’t even know and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, this looks like my grandma’s kitchen,’” said Billingsley.
The piece has multiple meanings, acting both as a tribute to her grandmother and as a symbol of a shared experience between her and other Black women. Her mother and aunt still get their hair done in her grandma’s kitchen, like many of the museum visitors. “To this day, like, my grandmother still does their hair at 77 years old,” she said. “So this is my favorite piece, that other women from all over —even out of state — even recognize the kitchen. There was even a lady from the Caribbean that said it reminded her of her kitchen from growing up.”
Billingsley’s family has been involved throughout the creation of the museum as well. Her aunt, mother, grandmother, cousins and children have all played their part in Billingsley’s vision. She reflected on highlights of the process: “When we first opened my favorite part was just watching…there’s just so many ladies that cry, like ‘Oh my god, I feel seen. I feel safe.’ Like, ‘this space feels like it’s for me.’ And that’s what I’m most proud of because we don’t get to feel that a lot,” she said.
Billingsley hopes to eventually travel the museum out of Colorado and share it with a broader audience. Currently, it’s housed in a retail space in the RiNo/ Five Points area that’s owned and operated by EDENS. Fifty percent of EDEN’s RiNo properties are BIPOC and women-owned-businesses. Billingsley attended East High School and grew up close to the museum’s current home, giving it a more personal connection. “I think it’s important for Denver to have and create spaces like these,” she said. “Or to even allow us to create spaces like these where people of color have more opportunities and spaces.” She’s excited to “bring this whole community together, not just people of color but everyone. Everyone’s welcome to experience a space.”
Due to COVID-19, visitors must reserve a time slot on the museum’s website ahead of time. Tickets are limited, and the museum requires masks and social distancing while inside the exhibit. A GoFundMe has also been created to help pay the museum’s artists, as the current phase of the museum has been completely self-funded. Many of the artists have brought and paid for their own materials and time. “We would love for people to donate to that so we can make sure that these artists that are working really hard here get paid,” said Billingsley.
The pop-up is located at 1439 26th Street. It is open Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday from 12 to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 12 to 6 p.m. It’s currently scheduled to operate through the end of April, with the potential to be extended further into the spring. Check out the social media of some of the artists featured: Blumenhaus Denver, Balloon Pop Studio, Kayla Washington, and AunJanee Niblet.
All photography by Brittany Werges