Story and photography by Jenny Roberts
Massive, glossy photographs line the walls at Ubuntu Fine Art in Germantown. Each image serves as a portal to another time and place, says gallery owner and photographer Steven CW Taylor. Viewers can be transported to a crowded SEPTA subway car just as easily as they can find themselves on an African island.
Taylor, 39, has been to 18 countries and his international travels are featured in some of the photographs currently hanging in the gallery at 5423 Germantown Avenue. Multiple images in “The Time Thief” collection were captured in Lamu, Kenya, which is part of the Lamu Archipelago off the coast of eastern Africa.
“Lamu is one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Taylor says. “There’s a level of freedom that you feel there … that is unexplainable.”
“It’s all in how you view it.” — Steven CW Taylor, Ubuntu founder
Ubuntu is a South African philosophy that emphasizes the shared humanity of all people. Taylor said he first came into contact with the meaning of Ubuntu in 2015 when he was visiting South Africa. For Taylor, it’s the spirit of the African people and the friends he’s made on the continent that keep bringing him back.
“It’s my second home,” he says.
Through his photos, Taylor, a Germantown native, captures naturalism and realism, acting as a documentarian.
“I move around space really well, in a manner that doesn’t disturb the organic interaction that’s happening,” Taylor adds. “I like to capture people’s natural essence and beauty within the things that they’re already doing.”
Each of the photographs on display at the gallery, which opened in September, can be purchased online as long as supplies last.
Every photo comes in varying sizes in either a print or acrylic version with prices varying from $150 to $6,500.
Ubuntu Fine Arts is unique in that all the featured work was shot solely by Taylor, who left his job as a backend software engineer with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in April 2021 to pursue photography full time. Many of Taylor’s photographs capture nature, landmarks and Black people experiencing joy.
Taylor says he sees many forms of popular media pushing negativity for ratings. This particularly impacts Black characters, he says. In his photography, he presents an alternative view of Blackness.
“I’m not chasing drama,” he explains. “I actually don’t even want to see it. I want to see us hugging. I want to see us shaking hands.”
“I want people to enjoy my work because it’s good, not because it’s controversial,” he continues. “I want people through my artwork to be able to see and understand what Ubuntu is: the connectedness between us all.”
Kristen Clark, co-owner of The KDD Theatre, a blackbox performance space next to the gallery, thinks that Taylor has successfully brought the South African philosophy back home.
“With Steven living in Ubuntu and actually adopting the practice as his lifestyle, it naturally seeps into the seams of Germantown,” says Clark.
Clark, 26, says her theater, along with Taylor’s gallery and Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books nearby, are all offering spaces for the community to explore arts and culture. She says she did not have similar artistic spaces available to her while growing up in Germantown.
“It’s just a validation for the folks in Germantown that you can be from a place and appreciate, thank, show gratitude to that place by staying home,” she says.
Salim Weldon, 37, is a longtime friend of Taylor. The two grew up together in Germantown playing football. He also thinks Taylor’s gallery has been a positive addition to the neighborhood.
“Young kids that walk like him, talk like him, look like him, come from the same areas as him—they’re able to step inside of his art gallery and travel the world,” Weldon says. “The impact is amazing.”
One of Taylor’s photographs currently on display at the gallery features a prominent Germantown intersection—Chew and East Chelten avenues. He titled the black and white image “Da Ave.”
“When people come here, they say, ‘You made Chew and Chelten look good,’” Taylor says. But he begs to differ.
“I didn’t make Chew and Chelten look good,” he says. “This is what Chew and Chelten looks like at 7:30 in the morning, two days before Christmas Eve. It’s all in how you view it.”
Clark says that while the intersection has a reputation for being dangerous, biases can impact how outsiders view it and Germantown.
“My home is my home,” she says. “It is beautiful. It is as beautiful as your home is, and not in theory, but literally.”
Taylor’s goal in opening the gallery in the same neighborhood he grew up in is to make fine art more accessible. Now residents won’t have to make the trek to Center City to experience fine art. Instead, they can just head to Germantown Avenue.
“Hopefully, I can be that beacon that brings more Black-owned dopeness,” Taylor says.
Ubuntu Fine Art is open Thursday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Monday to Wednesday by appointment only. ubuntufa.com