The Story of Mama Lula

Artist Shiloah Symone Coley shares her experience interviewing Parklands resident Miss Lula and creating Mama Lula, an animation now on view at Phillips@THEARC about Miss Lula’s story.

Roses fill Miss Lula’s living room when you peer in through the street-facing window. It’s July 12, 2022, just over a week since her 89th birthday on July 4. The flowers transform her intimate living room into looking much more like the garden just outside her window.

Miss Lula pictured just after her July 4th birthday. Photo: Shiloah Symone Coley

Her flowers thrive in the mid-summer heat and humidity. She wears a red, white, and blue Washington, DC Nationals baseball t-shirt with a matching hat that reads “LOVE.” It’s not the fourth of July anymore, but something feels quintessentially American in a different way–not just her outfit, but her, all 5 feet of a July 4th baby now in her elder years. She’s seen so many 4th of Julys.

I met Miss Lula earlier that year during the winter at one of the Creative Aging programs at Phillips@THEARC. An intimate program that day, Donna Jonte and I were joined by Miss Lula and her friend Miss Pam. We ate, talked, and made art. But one of the most memorable parts of that day were the stories Miss Lula told about the work. There was a story behind every piece. So when I had the idea to interview Black women who lived around THEARC in the Parklands community, she landed first on my list.

As I walked into THEARC with her for our first interview, people at the front desk and coming in and out of the building immediately knew who she was. Not only were pleasantries exchanged, but updates on life events were eagerly shared. She seemed to carry about her a unique mix of warmness and honesty that let people know it was okay to be themselves and say how they were really feeling with her. It helps that she’s lived in the community in the same apartment for 60 years. She’s watched some of these folks grow up.

As I interviewed Miss Lula, what I found most interesting about her story was her persistence to stay in the Parklands community. I think as a child I often dreamed of leaving home, moving, doing my own thing. Then, in my adulthood I have become accustomed to a semi-nomadic lifestyle where I move every couple of years. Both forced migration and chosen migration run rampant across all eras but seems particularly normalized with younger generations. On my block in Northwest DC my roommate and I have noted half the people who used to live on our block have moved within the past year. As we noticed how quickly and frequently the shift occurs, we began to wonder what it means for the community when people are able to stay.

Miss Lula knows migration well. She arrived in DC at Union Station as a little girl with her siblings after her maternal grandmother sent them up north from South Carolina to be reunited with their parents, an experience not uncommon to most children growing up during the Great Migration. She would spend the rest of her life in Maryland and DC, and most of her life in her current residence in Parklands. Mama Lula is about one woman who has been able to stay and has chosen to stay in her community despite the changing landscape around her.

I originally set out to tell a story about the community from various perspectives with insight from multiple women from different generations. And perhaps that project will still take shape one day. But it became clear after interviewing Miss Lula, that her voice was deserving of its own project. Maybe the countless cards and flowers she received on her birthday were indicative of not just the lives she’s touched, but the importance of her as an elder in the community with a life and story to share.

Finding where the sky meets the sand with TASSC board member Hagir Elsheikh

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with author, advocate, and survivor Hagir Elsheikh, whose portrait is featured in Portraits of Resilience at Phillips@THEARC (on view through July 29).

Jonathan Banks, Hagir Elsheikh, Sudan, 2019, Photograph, Courtesy of the artist

Hagir Elsheikh chose an image of her daughters to be projected onto her portrait taken by Jonathan Banks as part of the ongoing photo series Portraits of Resilience. The photo series features images of survivors of torture from around the world who fled their home countries seeking safety, recovery, and political asylum.

The war in Ukraine draws attention from people all around the world with approximately 8 million people being internally displaced, and 6.5 million fleeing to seek refuge in other countries, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Yet refugees from the Global South fleeing humanitarian crises have not been met with nearly the same response as their Ukrainian counterparts. Prior to the war in Ukraine, 68 percent of people forcibly displaced worldwide came from just five countries—Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar—according to the UNHCR Global Trends 2020.

The girls sit, smiling, surrounded by an abundance of greenery in the photograph. Their mother grew up in a much more arid environment with seemingly never-ending expanses of sand that nearly touch the sky at the horizon. Hagir wouldn’t arrive in the US, the place her daughters now call home, until 2001.

Hagir grew up during a time when women were often treated as second class citizens in Sudan, in part, reinforced by Sharia Islamic law, which formally began in 1983. The Islamic code restricted the rights of women. What does she tell her daughters about her life and upbringing in Sudan? “Everything, everything,” said Elsheikh. For every stage of her childrens’ lives she communicates part of her own story. In reference to her eldest daughter, Hagir said, “Every stage of her life, she knew what it was like for me at that age and how it is now for kids in Sudan at that age.”

Elsheikh wrote about her experience as part of Portraits of Resilience: “I was one of a few women activists who spoke publicly for the Democratic forefront. I experienced what happens in the infamous ‘Ghost Houses’ of Sudan, where brutality and murder are commonplace. I fought for women and human rights which meant that I was often detained and beaten. I was only a girl when Bashir’s security forces hung me from a tree and beat me for 10 hours, then left my bloody body in front of my home. During college, I continued to be detained and tortured until my head was cracked open with a metal bar by the government militia.”

Since immigrating to the U.S. in 2001, Hagir has relentlessly shared her story with the hopes of improving the lives of Sudanese people and women who have suffered human rights atrocities and domestic violence abroad and in the U.S. She is now a successful business owner, talk show host, board member of multiple nonprofits, and continues to be an advocate and activist for women’s rights through her nonprofit, Tomorrow’s Smile, Inc. But it’s not the titles or accomplishments that define success for Hagir.

“Did I make someone happy today? Did I help someone? Did I make a difference? Did everything bad that happened to me make it better for someone else?” asks Hagir. “And if the answer is yes, then I’m good. If the answer is no, I’m going to look and see what can I do? What more can I do?”

While adapting to life in the U.S. Hagir found herself navigating the challenges and violence of an abusive relationship. The persecution and violence she has faced in both her native country and once she immigrated to the U.S. inspired her to start Tomorrow’s Smile, Inc., which assists mostly Arab-speaking immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

The cover of Elsheikh’s autobiography Through Tragedy and Triumph: A Life Well Traveled, co-written with Tom Peasley

“I wanted to combine all those resources because as a domestic violence victim, you already have enough. You’re beaten, you’ve taken enough,” said Elsheikh. “And for you to navigate and try to figure out, ‘What do I need to do to get legal help? What do I need to do to get through this?’ It’s overwhelming so I wanted to take the burden off.”

Hagir chronicled her story in her autobiography Through Tragedy and Triumph: A Life Well Traveled, co-written with Tom Peasley. As a woman who has overcome incredible feats, she’s still in search of herself. In the opening chapter, she tells the story of a little girl, a young Hagir, who is out wandering the desert in search of “where the blue sky meets the sand.”

“I don’t know if I found myself yet or that area where the sand meets the clouds. I’m still in search of that,” said Hagir. “I’m still in search of who truly I am and that area, what it represents.” Perhaps that space between the sand and the sky is where we find ourselves.

Hagir’s book is available for purchase in the Phillips’s gift shop.

The Genesis of Something New with Wesley Clark at Phillips@THEARC

2021-22 Sherman Fairchild Fellow Shiloah Coley speaks with Wesley Clark about his centennial commission, genesis.

Wesley Clark working in his studio during the beginning phases of the project

After countless delays due to labor and supply chain shortages, a new installation is emerging from the walls of Phillips@THEARC. At first glance, it might seem as though Wesley Clark’s centennial commission, genesis, is moving—emerging and retracting, weaving in and out of the walls of the workshop space. This piece closes out our centennial celebration as the final of three site-specific commissions by DC-based artists. The first two were completed by Victor Ekpuk and Nekisha Durrett.

Wesley Clark working on genesis in his studio. Photo: AK Blythe

Clark’s commission is the only one located at Phillips@THEARC, our satellite workshop and gallery space in Southeast DC at the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC). Due to Covid-19, it has been a quiet past few years at THEARC, making genesis a welcomed new addition and burst of energy. The vibrant colors of the geometric node-like forms that Clark describes as “creative seedlings” immediately draw your attention in the lobby of THEARC West. But that’s only the beginning. Upon entering the Phillips@THEARC workshop space, the geometric forms transform into something much more organic, almost like the branches or roots of a tree.

Wesley Clark working on genesis in his studio. Photo: AK Blythe

“It became a mix of the geometric and some more organic forms and it kind of brought a whole new feel and life to it, to be more about this intersection between our everyday physical life being organic and our digital life being the more geometric aspects,” shared Clark. “But also this blossoming or blooming or bubbling up of creative ideas is really what the whole piece is kind of about. Like birthing, being at the start of birthing ideas and creativity.”

Wesley Clark installing genesis in the Phillips@THEARC workshop. Photo: AK Blythe

Similar to the root-like structure bursting from the nodes as one moves from the lobby to the workshop, THEARC has community partners all throughout the building, from Children’s National Health Center to Bishop Walker School for Boys. But at the core of those off-shooting branches is the community at the center–where we come together to gather, to enter, to begin. “The lobby is like the bulb from which everything grows in a building,” said Clark.

Visitor engaging with the installation during the Juneteenth unveiling at Phillips@THEARC. Photo: Ryan Maxwell Photography

If you get close enough to the piece, you may be able to decipher the names of some of the neighborhoods in Southeast surrounding the Parklands community that THEARC calls home. Akin to how Victor Ekpuk’s installation displays symbols for the audience to decode, Clark utilizes graffiti-style tags to communicate. A big fan of graffiti and street art as a kid, he found himself drawn to the medium in his studio practice as a tool for mark-making.

“I incorporate it a lot into the work I do. In this work, the colorful sections are like a lot of the tagging and what not,” said Clark. “It’s a very interesting mark-making situation, a script.” A script known as the visual element that accompanied the birth of hip hop, created by predominantly Black and Brown youth seeking ways to claim space in quickly-evolving New York City during the 1970s in response to racial and economic injustice. Tagging became a way for people to claim space that once belonged to them.

Close-up shot of installation in the lobby of THEARC. Photo: Ryan Maxwell Photography

The graffiti tags may remind some of abandoned industrial buildings or train cars, but for others it’s a language that’s understandable in the community–a form of creativity first born out of rebellion. Clark appropriates that graffiti-style and mixes it with the organic staining of the wood, combining the artificial and organic, industrial and natural, new and old. The work reflects his additive and subtractive process that includes adding paint and filing it off, repeating the process until a piece feels finished. genesis is materially and aesthetically filled with juxtapositions and contradictions that reflect the complexity of asking what community looks like in our continuously changing world.

The final “nodes” in THEARC lobby. Photo: Ryan Maxwell Photography