The Youthful Insights Behind ‘Black Histories, Black Futures’

Jadon Smith is one of six teen curators for “Black Histories, Black Futures,” the first exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, curated entirely by high school students. photo credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Although the exhibit highlighted here began in January (notably directly following the holiday honoring MLK), we have the CS Monitor to thank for bringing it to our attention.  The museum is currently closed due to the coronavirus outbreaks, but the making of video on the MFA website shows some highlights, and we can only hope that there will be opportunity to visit it in person before the end date of June 20th.

“The teen curators—fellows from youth empowerment organizations Becoming a Man (BAM), The BASE, and the Bloomberg Arts Internship Boston program managed by EdVestors—used skills they developed as paid interns in a pilot internship program at the MFA to research, interpret, and design the exhibition. Their work highlights areas of excellence within the Museum’s collection and lays foundations for the future.”

What if curators were teens? Museums try it.

Jadon Smith steps closer to his favorite painting by Archibald Motley, carefully examining the details he’s looked at many times before, a smile from ear to ear. At the center of the piece, five elegant women dressed in their Sunday best sit in a restaurant. One woman, hidden in the background, catches his attention.

The John Axelrod Collection/Frank B. Bemis Fund, Charles H. Bayley Fund, and the Heritage Fund for a Diverse Collection/Courtesy of The MFA “Cocktails” by Archibald Motley is an oil on canvas painting from about 1926. Motley was known for depicting the blossoming of black social life.

“Women are the centerpiece of the whole entire painting,” says Jadon, a junior at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, during a visit to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in early March. “They’re supposed to be there to be seen. Don’t ignore them. Notice that they’re there, appreciate the fact that they’re there.”

Jadon is one of six local teens selected to craft “Black Histories, Black Futures” – the museum’s first exhibition curated entirely by high school students. The MFA’s exhibition, the culmination of a partnership with local youth empowerment organizations, reflects a growing trend, one that has museums working to engage and represent a more diverse population within the field of fine art. Including young people in the curation process not only trains the next generation of curators, say museum staffers, but it also helps aging institutions display refreshing and inclusive exhibitions inspired by the young curators’ own experiences.

“This institution is 150 years old. And so what does that mean for young people? Where do young people belong in such an old institution?” says Layla Bermeo, an associate curator at the MFA. “This project really tried to argue that young people belong in the center.”..

…In Boston, “Black Histories, Black Futures” highlights works by well-known 20th-century artists of color, as well as local artists, some presented in the MFA for the first time. Besides the opportunity to offer something new for its 150th anniversary, the exhibit is a way for the MFA to fulfill a goal of being welcoming and inclusive – an aim that took a hit last spring when a group of minority students said they were harassed by security officers during their first visit to the museum.

Shared experiences

In creating “Black Histories, Black Futures” the student curators had a lot of freedom. The only prerequisite was to showcase black artists, says Ms. Bermeo. The interns decided to make sure they were portraying the plurality of black experiences.

Jadon, for example, wants viewers to “see the beauty in blackness,” but he also wants to inspire young people to consider careers in the art world. He says if he could do it – with no art experience – then so can they. “I’m a city kid, just like them,” he says.

All the pieces in “Black History, Black Future” focus on powerful images of black communities. “It’s a completely different kind of exhibition,” says Ms. Bermeo. “This one really centers the types of objects that this group of young people wanted to see here in the museum, works of art that reflected their experiences versus maybe a kind of more art historical one that would grow out of one of my projects or one of the other curators’ projects here at the museum.”

The works in the exhibit – which is expected to run through June 20, 2021, though the MFA is currently closed due to the coronavirus outbreak – are drawn largely from the MFA’s own collection, supplemented by loans from the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists. (Some of the pieces can be seen in a “Making of” video on the museum’s website.) The exhibit is divided into four thematic sections: “Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are,” celebrating the black community; “Welcome to the City,” focusing on urban scenes; and “Normality Facing Adversity” and “Smile in the Dark” both focusing on images of dignified black families before and after the civil rights movement.

One of the great visual chroniclers of 20th-century America, Motley – who painted Jadon’s favorite, titled “Cocktails” – was known for depicting the blossoming of black social life and jazz culture in vibrant city scenes. “To me [“Cocktails”] was the embodiment of just Ubuntu itself, just community building, showing that there’s more to black culture than just the civil rights movements,” says Jadon.  “That shouldn’t be the first thing to pop in your head.”

Read the entire article here.

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