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Meeting Ms. Van Der Zee

Studio Museum

Expanding the Walls 2017 with Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee

Photo: Ginny Huo

This month, Expanding the Walls (ETW)—an eight-month photography-based program at the Studio Museum—participants had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Van Der Zee, the widow of the late Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee (1886–1983).

Every year the Expanding the Walls program exposes its young artists to a wide range of artists of African descent, and James Van Der Zee’s photography becomes a key inspiration for program participants’ work. Van Der Zee tried to see that each photograph documented the person to look better and that is what I consider when clicking that shutter button of my camera. Van Der Zee, known for his iconic portraits of 1920s and 1930s middle-class Harlemites, created images of dignity and refinement that helped portray the lives of African Americans. 

So, with this deep interest in Van Der Zee’s work, it was exciting to meet Ms. Van Der Zee, whose enthusiastic attitude immediately intrigued me. She told us very personal, yet hilarious stories about Van Der Zee and the person he was outside of how books described him. She told us about his encounter with Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American contemporary artist, and legendary athlete and activist Muhammad Ali. The personal stories make an iconic figure like Van Der Zee seem human. Although he is not alive today, there is a sense of personal familiarity that we were so lucky to have been exposed to.  

Meeting Ms. Van Der Zee further taught me what the responsibility of an artist is and how important it is to show a fair depiction of my subjects. I learned to own my work and be proud of it at every stage. I also learned that you must take care of your work and nourish it.

My favorite part of her visit was when I, along with my peers, showed her our photographs inspired by Mr. Van Der Zee. Seeing how thrilled she was to see my work only made me want to be extraordinary and outstanding. I want to be able to set the standards one day and be an example of an artist who inspires other young artists, and overall, an artist who pushes boundaries to create something very distinct. Meeting Ms. Van Der Zee was one of the many unique experiences I have had in the program, and it was an opportunity I will cherish.

— Pia, Expanding the Walls ‘17

My name is Pia and I am from Queens, New York. I am inspired by Frida Kahlo and many South Asian artists who defy the norms that were blindly accepted by their community. I enjoy to draw and watch films on Netflix in my free time. I hope to inspire others and help make the world a better a place.