On my way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently to see “Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of the Beautiful Project,” an exhibition of poetry and photography by black girls and women based in Durham, N.C., I looked up to its facade. And there I saw Wangechi Mutu’s stately African and divinely inspired female quartet of bronze sculptures.
As I headed to show, at the Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education, I began thinking that the spatial difference between these two collections was not a juxtaposition between high art for public viewing and art used for community outreach. Instead they were on a continuum, in which the black girls in the photographs and Mutu’s figures actively challenged the notion of who belongs in those cultural spaces.
Today, more than ever, mainstream institutions are recognizing black women’s work (and beauty) in new and unprecedented ways. In 2019, black women were crowned in the five major beauty pageants, including Miss World and Miss America. A recent four-week Film Forum series focused exclusively on performances by black actresses (many of whom weren’t even credited for their roles in early Hollywood films), while another at the Museum of Modern Art, “It’s All in Me: Black Heroines,” opens soon. And since its unveiling at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in 2018, Amy Sherald’s painting of the former first lady Michelle Obama has received a record number of visitors. (This summer it will go on a five-city tour, with Kehinde Wiley’s painting of President Barack Obama.)
The photographer Jamaica Gilmer, who founded the Beautiful Project in 2004, grew up with a mother of the 1960s who taught her about the relationship between beauty, power and racial freedom. Through the project she seeks to nurture those kinds of intergenerational dialogues for young girls and to create programs in which artists could “boldly and unapologetically create images of black girls and women just as they are, daring them and the world that engages them to see the many, varied ways every black girl is indeed, beautiful.”
Displaying only a sliver of the work that the collective has created in the last 15 years, the Metropolitan Museum dedicated the main hallway of its Center for Education to this exhibition, which combines writing prompts; a sisterhood credo; the video installation “Dear Black Girl,” directed by Christin Stephens; and a collection of photographs taken by girls (ages 8 to 15) who are in the program or alumnae of it, as well by their adult mentors, including Ms. Gilmer.
The result is a tender, dynamic portrait of black Southern life that opens up important conversations about gender, race and the authority of the photographic gaze. In “Happy Birthday,” Jade Clauden presents a series of vivid images from unusual angles — a table filled with plastic cups, a birthday banner that hangs way too high — that she infuses with the playful curiosity of a child’s eye.
Avery Patterson’s “Damola” is a wonderful example of the kind of recentering that defines this exhibition. Her focus on her dark-brown-skinned teenage subject — wearing long braids, hoop earrings, a mustard yellow shirt and standing, hands akimbo, against a gray background — is not to make an explicit statement about racial hierarchies or color discrimination. But by showing us the everyday beauty that Ms. Patterson sees, she reveals black girlhood as an intimate and vibrant rite of passage. In turn, Ms. Gilmer’s “We Are the Aperture” — a black-and-white group portrait of girls facing their camera lens outward back at her, back at us — reflects the universal sense of belonging.
“We use photography and writing as the fantastic tools and weapons of choice that can cultivate our ability to see ourselves and each other,” Ms. Gilmer said in an interview. “What it offers everyone else is the opportunity to think about what that means for them.”
After a brief pause, she continued: “We do this not to convince the world to see black girls and women as dignified. We do this because we want to constantly acknowledge and see our own dignity.”
Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of the Beautiful Project
Through Feb. 24 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.