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Charlie Billingsley gives Black girls their flowers with pop-up museum in RiNo

//Creative Director Von Ross (left) and Founder Charmaine “Charlie” Billingsley (right) at the Museum for Black Girls in Denver on March 31. Photo by Karson Hallaway | karsonhallaway@gmail.com

As a Black female photographer, Charlie Billingsley struggled to find outlets to house her artwork. Determined to share her art, she decided to take matters into her own hands, opening a pop-up museum dedicated to elevating the voices of Black girls. 

After its first successful run back in 2019 reaching over 70,000 people on social media, The Museum For Black Girls returned to Denver last February, shifting from Aurora to the River North neighborhood, the city’s historic art district. Open until early May, visitors can explore a plethora of interactive galleries inspired by Black Girl Magic, Billingsley’s mantra for the space. 

“Growing up in the city, it’s getting better, but it’s harder to get our artwork out there, to get the resources and for people to see us,” Billingsley said. “We don’t get hired on a lot of projects. You’ll see very few faces of color on a lot of projects, so we have to create our own spaces.”

Located at 1421 26th St., the museum’s vibrant experience has garnered the attention of underrepresented artists throughout the city looking for an outlet to feature their work. The effect is a museum that is constantly evolving, each new artist helping to exemplify Black Girl Magic. As the founder, Billingsley says the museum’s most consistent feedback from guests is that they finally feel seen. 

“We got a comment saying, ‘I wish I could take all this magic with me and put it out into the world.’ That’s what art does,” she said.

The Museum for Black Girls is a self-funded, grassroots project. All participating artists have pooled their resources to craft the installations and support the flourishing space.  

“You’ll see a lot of photos of my daughter,” Billingsley said. “She’s also the inspiration for the museum. Building her self-esteem, letting her know that her features are beautiful and she’s beautiful just the way she is—we don’t get a lot of spaces like that, spaces where we see people who look like us [so we] know it’s okay to look exactly how we are.”

One of Billingsley’s pieces, “Grandma’s Kitchen,” serves as a love letter to her childhood. She describes the piece as a sentimental testament to hairstyling before Sunday church amidst lively conversations with friends and family, all within the homely walls of a kitchen. A sign next to the installation reads, “Our hair is a big part of our evolution and our revolution.”

After launching her Colorado Springs-based balloon artistry business in April 2020, Aisha Glenn-Bracey says she was honored to house her inflated melanin tree in the museum. Her piece, titled “Roots,” reminds the viewer of all the shades Black girls come in, as represented by the tree of life. Balloons of different sizes and colors compose the branches, supported under a textured, charcoal base. 

“Looking at Black trauma, many American people feel our history, our culture, starts with slavery and nothing but depression and anxiety,” Glenn-Bracey said. “The museum shows off the beauty in what we have to offer. It showcases that for many different kinds of people.” 

Flowers are also a central motif of the space, adorning various installations and murals so as to further amplify the museum’s dazzling vibrancy.  

“We’re giving Black girls their flowers,” Billingsley said. “It also represents Black girls moving and evolving, standing in their power and going for things that we never thought we could achieve.”

As a community-oriented artist, Valen Ibarra wanted to contribute to Billingsley’s vision through her flower artistry. Her brand, Blumenhaus, shares interactive flower art throughout the Denver area. As a white woman, Ibarra emphasizes the importance of leading by example. Her installation at the museum was inspired by flower mirrors, empowering viewers to feel uplifted upon seeing themselves in a frame of flowers, feathers and sparkles. 

“White women need to do their research and educate themselves on Black history and how Black women literally built America and show other women that uplifting Black women [and] girls is important, uplifting women of color is important and I’ll always fiercely support that cause,” Ibarra said.

Glenn-Bracey, and a diverse group of volunteers spanning multiple ethnicities and genders, put together the final touches of the tree on the early morning of the museum’s opening day, Feb. 19. The response, she says, was astounding. 

The museum serves a dual function, acting as both a sanctuary and a monument to Black women. Bright lights and colors contrast industrial walls and tall ceilings. It is an expression embodying the versatility, resilience and vibrancy that defines Black Girl Magic.

Whether girls want to write their affirmations and dreams in the “Vibe Room” or snap a photo in front of a canvas wall of inspirational Black women, each interactive piece in the museum strives to ignite a powerful and lasting sense of pride. Viewers of all backgrounds and identities will leave the museum with one of the museum’s most well-liked installations, “The Perfect Recipe” for a Black girl, planted at the forefront of their minds: “Equal parts beauty and brains, a bucket of melanin, two handfuls of curls, a sprinkle of curves and five spoonfuls of magic.”

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