Seneca Steplight-Tillet purses her shiny lips and gives the air a kiss in a selfie video.
The 8-year-old then swings her phone around and points it at a mirror inside a makeup case. In its reflection are tubes of lip gloss, but she is still the focus.
Steplight-Tillet stares back in the mirror, holding the phone and modeling a shade of vibrant magenta gloss. She simultaneously appears in miniature on the phone screen, framed by the purple makeup case. And smaller still, inside the reflected image of the phone.
The infinite mirror effect isn’t just an optical trick — it speaks to both the gravity and joy of “Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility,” a new art exhibition on display now through July 2 at Express Newark.
Newark’s Steplight-Tillet is the dominant image in every frame and every reflection. She’s in control.
Now 9, she is the youngest artist in the exhibition, and she’s in good company. Tillet’s 38-second video, titled “Make Up Time,” is displayed next to well-known photos from renowned artist Carrie Mae Weems, 68.
In Weems’ 1990 black-and-white photo, “Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Make Up),” she is the mother applying lipstick at a kitchen table next to a daughter who does the same. The image is part of her iconic “Kitchen Table Series” of photographs.
Conversations between Black girls across generations — both as subjects and artists — are the strong foundation of the exhibition at Express Newark, the 50,000-square-foot gallery space in the Hahne & Co. building that is part of Rutgers-Newark.
“What’s so unique about this show is that Black girls themselves are able to tell their own story, which is really important,” says co-curator Scheherazade Tillet, Steplight-Tillet’s aunt.
More than half the artists in the show are under 18 years old, their photos and films displayed alongside prominent images and work from older and established Black artists and photographers.
This dialogue between images spans more than 170 works across three floors, putting today’s Black girls in focus while linking intergenerational experiences.
The exhibition’s two signature images were taken 53 years apart.
Black Lives Matter and #MeToo activist Ángelina Cofer’s “Nineteen,” a self-portrait of the artist sitting on a bed last year in an orange dress, is positioned next to “Rural Family Girlhood, Mileston, Mississippi,” civil rights activist Doris Derby’s black-and-white portrait of a girl leaning on a bed frame in 1968.
“In this particular moment, the focus on Black girlhood is so important,” co-curator Zoraida Lopez-Diago tells NJ Advance Media. “When you think of COVID, when you think of the racial uprising that happened in this country, Black girls are often forgotten. Really shining a light on their experiences and the whole dynamism of what a Black girl is was such an incredible opportunity.”
The work in “Picturing Black Girlhood” comes from more than 80 Black girls, women and genderqueer artists between 9 and 93 years old.
At an exhibition preview and artist reception Feb. 16, Seneca Steplight-Tillet milled around with more senior artists like Lola Flash, 63. The New York photographer, who grew up in Montclair, has had work displayed in the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“I love this kind of juxtaposition of the emerging artists and established artists,” Flash tells NJ Advance Media — especially in the name of Black joy, in direct opposition to invisibility. “I feel like they’re breaking rules here that need to be broken.”
“Tenzin,” Flash’s 2008 portrait of a young boy holding a feathered fan, taken from the artist’s “Surmise” series about gender and the way queer people are perceived, is included in the show. The photo is displayed across from photos by Carrie Mae Weems, another of Flash’s subjects.
“I feel very much at home somehow,” says Flash, an artist and activist who was a member of ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power — during the height of the AIDS epidemic and featured in the 1989 “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster.
Steplight-Tillet, whose video plays just paces away from Flash’s photo, started with a simple desire to document her makeup kit, a birthday gift.
“I really wanted to record it,” she says. She had no idea that her perspective would be included in the show.
The clip conveys the feeling of experimentation, discovery and self-reflection that is a rite of passage for so many girls and children.
Scheherazade Tillet says the interjection of her niece’s video into a narrative with Carrie Mae Weems’ images, which have grounded the work of so many Black photographers, delivers “a modern-day moment of selfie and affirmation and agency — she’s telling her own story.”
An artist herself, Tillet’s work is included in the show. Her curation of “Picturing Black Girlhood” is part of her two-year residency at Shine Portrait Studio (also in the Hahne & Co. building) and Express Newark, where her sister Salamishah Tillet — Steplight-Tillet’s mother — is director.
Scheherazade Tillet, 43, also has a solo art show, “Black Girl Play,” that opened in January and runs through March 13 at Project for Empty Space in Newark (800 Broad St.). The artist, who was born in Boston and grew up between Port of Spain, Trinidad, Newark and Orange, created the photo exhibition — centered around Black girls, joy and play — from several series over five years in Port of Spain, Newark and Chicago.
She runs the Chicago-based national nonprofit A Long Walk Home, which she co-founded with Salamishah in 2003, where the mission is to use art to end violence against women and girls. Scheherazade’s multimedia project “Story of a Rape Survivor,” which she started in the late ’90s, chronicles Salamishah’s journey after being raped twice when she was a college student.
A sizable portion of the photography in “Picturing Black Girlhood” comes from girls who have worked with A Long Walk Home.
One of Scheherazade’s photographs in the show, “Black Girls, Good Friday Morning, Westside Chicago, Illinois” (2016), is an emphatic response to the 1941 Russell Lee photograph “Negro Boys on Easter Morning. Southside, Chicago, Illinois.”
The Tillet sisters have together played a huge role in creating space for Black girls in Newark’s art scene.
Salamishah Tillet, director of Express Newark, is a Rutgers professor of African American studies and creative writing as well as director of New Arts Justice, a Rutgers-Newark arts incubator at Express Newark.
The initiative has produced public art installations like “Will You Be My Monument,” a work from the Tillets and designer Chantal Fischzang and inspired by the removal of Newark’s Columbus statue from Washington Park in 2020. Scheherazade’s photo of Faa’Tina, a Black girl who celebrated her 8th birthday in the park, can be seen on the mirrored installation across the facade of a four-story building.
“What I want to leave behind in Newark is the understanding and the depth and the breadth of Black girlhood,” Scheherazade Tillet says. She looks at the three floors of art at Express Newark and says they could have kept going.
Tillet anticipates the exhibition will see visits from school groups.
“This is bigger than all of us,” she says. “This is American history.”
Both “Picturing Black Girlhood” and “Black Girl Play” were presented Feb. 17 to 19 alongside the “Black Portraiture[s] VII: Play & Performance” conference. The three-day event was a livestreamed edition of the Black Portraiture[s] Conference that started as a colloquium on African American art at Harvard University and had its first event in Paris in 2013.
“Picturing Back Girlhood” began as part of the 2016 Black Girl Movement Conference at Columbia University. At the time, the selection of art, which is mostly photography but also includes video and textiles, was smaller and fixated on Black girls in public spaces and the outdoors (the exhibition opened with double dutch performers and a DJ).
“This year we’re thinking about the interiority of Black girls,” says Lopez-Diago, 41. Each floor of Express Newark is tagged to a different theme. The first is centered around access and collaboration — “How do Black girls work with each other?” she says. “What’s the special relationship between Black women photographers and Black girl photographers?”
That exploration also includes mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. Other parts of the exhibition address grief and protest, including the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Elsewhere, spaces are devoted to freedom, care and beauty, where hair is its own art and joy. One interactive display invites visitors to create their own braid sculpture. Scheherazade Tillet’s “twerk mirror” comes with a scannable playlist so people can try out dance moves.
The examination of beauty also includes Kiri Laurelle Davis’ 7-minute documentary “A Girl Like Me,” which was made in 2005 at the dawn of the YouTube age. The film went viral for taking on the destructive influence of white beauty standards and for its recreation of the 1940s “doll test” experiments. In the original prompts, which played a role in Brown v. Board of Education, psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Phipps Clark asked Black children to choose between Black and white dolls. Most chose the white dolls. When Davis, then 17, tried the experiment more than half a century later, most children still chose the white doll.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to Black girls as royalty — “invoking mythology and refusing pathology” in regal works like Tawny Chatmon’s “Best” and “The Burden Was Never Yours To Carry” (both 2020), which channel the work of Gustav Klimt in their intricate use of gold leaf to adorn and exalt photographs of Black girls.
Ayana V. Jackson, an international artist from South Orange, appears in a 2016 self-portrait as Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who was born in West Africa and thought to be from a royal family of Yoruba descent. As a girl, Forbes Bonetta was enslaved in a war, then given to Captain Frederick Forbes of the British Royal Navy as a “gift” for Queen Victoria and brought to England, where she became the queen’s goddaughter. Jackson reimagines existing photo portraits of Forbes Bonetta (then Sarah Davies) from the 1860s, positioning her as someone granted self-determination.
“I love her because she talks about fighting photography with photography,” says Lopez-Diago, who also has work in the show.
In Jackson’s “Dear Sarah” series, the photographer poses as Sarah wearing jewels, a white dress and black boots, but standing with her knees bent and feet turned out, eyes closed, a meditative expression on her face. British artist Heather Agyepong’s 2015 photos, displayed alongside Jackson’s work, also reimagine staid images of Sarah.
“What does it look like when Black girls are just free and have a moment of respite?” Lopez-Diago says, pointing to “Black Utopia,” a green space of a box gallery furnished with bright, hand-woven lawn chairs created by Newark artist Kim Hill and Nydia Blas’ 2016 photograph “Group #2″ from her series “The Girls Who Spun Gold,” which pictures four young women and a baby outside in a leisure scene.
A separate display case spotlights a series of dresses that represent coming-of-age events like proms, debutante balls, quinceañeras and pageants, including Miss Newark USA.
One white gown has a large red stain down the middle, a statement on violence against Black trans women and girls. The dress, worn by Mya Mirari, came from a 2021 kiki ballroom competition that was a fundraiser for LGBTQ+ youth.
A dotted Swiss and lace dress in the same display case belongs to the oldest artist in the exhibition — Elizabeth Moore Wheeler.
Moore Wheeler, who will turn 94 on March 1, made the dress in 1942, in her home economics class for her eighth grade graduation from Newark’s Morton Street School. Four years earlier, she moved north from Georgia with her mother as part of the Great Migration.
A photo of Moore Wheeler wearing the dress as a girl is included in the display. So is a “White Dress Narratives” video from her daughter, artist Adrienne Wheeler, that shows the same dress outside, blowing in the wind.
“It fits perfectly when you look at the evolution of young girl’s life to womanhood,” says Wheeler, 64, of her mother’s contribution to the intergenerational exhibition. She also appreciates that in the middle of all the dresses, there’s a suit from a prom.
Paloma Boyewa-Osborne, 15, has three photographs in the show, including a self-portrait, which were previously on display at the Bronx Documentary Center. But seeing her images in a show with veteran artists?
“It’s pretty crazy,” the New Yorker says. “I’ve seen the work in other museums.”
Alliyah Allen, who grew up in Newark, is an assistant curator of the exhibition. Allen, 25, found Express Newark when she was looking “for space to feel seen, to feel comfortable,” she says.
Her own work, a striking portrait titled “Shaleia,” was taken in 2018, when she was a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania discovering her perspective as a photographer.
“I’m just really excited to be able to exhibit this back here at home,” she says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, really, to be able to show this.”
“Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility” is on display through July 2 at Express Newark, 54 Halsey St. (second floor of the Hahne & Co. building) in Newark; admission free. Exhibition hours are noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday. Visitors 12 years and older must be vaccinated against COVID-19, and visitors 2 and older must wear a mask. Photo ID and proof of vaccination or negative PCR test test taken no more than 72 hours prior must be presented upon entry.
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