‘Picturing Black Girlhood’ Beautifully, Powerfully, Allows Visitors To Listen

‘Picturing Black Girlhood’ Beautifully, Powerfully, Allows Visitors To Listen

Great artwork inspires conversation.

A gallery energized by spirited discussion proves an artist has done something right.

But there are times, too, when the most important behavior to undertake when viewing art is listening. Listening to what the artist is trying to say. Listening to what the subjects of that artwork are trying to say.

Such is the case with “Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility,” an exhibition exploring Black girlhood through the work of more than 80 Black women, girls and genderqueer artists working in photography and film on view through July 2, 2022, at Express Newark in downtown Newark.

The strikingly beautiful, powerful, original presentation allows visitors–perhaps for the first time–to deeply and broadly consider the lives and perspectives of Black girls.


“In the canon of art history or in photography, when we talk about girlhood, Black girls are just missing from the conversation,” exhibition co-curator, photographer and activist Zoraida Lopez-Diago told Forbes.com. “They are overlooked in general in society and in the art world as well.”

When not being overlooked, they are much too often looked upon with hostility.

“All too often Black girls are over-sexualized,” Lopez-Diago added. “They’re considered older than their age.”

This “adultification” commonly results in Black girls facing double standards when being disciplined in school or engaging with police.

In 2021, 16-year-old Black girl Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by police in Columbus, OH who responded to a disturbance call from her house. She was shot 11-seconds after officers arrived on the scene with little understanding to what was taking place there.

Similar police violence against a white girl is unimaginable.


“They’ve been the leaders of our social justice movements. I don’t think we would have understood the depth of what was happening with George Floyd if we didn’t have the videotape from Darnella Frazier (who was 17 at time),” exhibition co-curator, photographer and activist Scheherazade Tillet told Forbes.com. “So, there’s two things happening at the same time: discarding Black girls and the importance of them, and yet we rely on them in so many ways and we also are inspired by them in so many ways as cultural producers and influencers. Black girls have been leading, but not often getting credit, for their achievements or success.”


“The importance of the exhibition that we’ve created is a really an intervention calling a focus on Black girlhood, (and the vastness) of what Black girlhood is,” Tillet explains. “I think that’s the important intervention that we made during this exhibition, having such a scale of three floors of a building and having 84 artists, (it) tells the depth of the story of what Black girlhood is, not only today, but in the past.”


Tillet was inspired to create this show after attending a 2009 exhibition focused on adolescent girls absent representation of Black girls.

“All the artists that we dreamed of said ‘yes’ to us and I do think they understood the importance of the intervention that we’re making,” Tillet said. “We don’t see many exhibitions like this today.”


“One thing we did that I’m so proud, we made the decision to put the works of Black girl artists in the show side-by-side with the work of the legends and the more established Black women artists to really try to break down the hierarchy between the two,” Lopez-Diago said. “It also showed, in a way, the care and the reciprocity between Black women and girls who make work.”

Half of the artists in the exhibition are Black girls under the age of 18 who were identified for the project from art organizations.


Someone like Carrie Mae Weems or Latoya Ruby Frazier, for so many photographers, especially Black girls and women photographers, they really are the icons. They’re our heroes,” Lopez-Diago said. “Seeing the longevity and the commitment to their work is a testament–to have photographers in the show who have gotten Guggenheim (fellowships) and MacArthur (genius grants) shows these young girls that the sky is the limit in photography.”

The child artists aren’t the only ones benefitting.

“Some of the women photographers when they look at the girl photographers, the girls are so honest and truthful. They’re not hesitating,” Lopez-Diago adds. “I think for established photographers, it’s really refreshing to see those moments and to be inspired by them.”


The youngest girl with artwork in the show, then-8-year-old Seneca Steplight-Tillet, has her work paired with the legendary Weems.

“It’s rare to have a show where you are in a show with people who paved the way for you. You get to see the past and then you also get to see the emerging artists and a new generation that’s about to come,” Tillet said. “It’s a true homage to the history of photography in America, but we happen to be telling it through Black girlhood.”


“Disproportionately, the youth work are self-portraiture work telling their own story on their own terms,” Tillet said, broadly speaking, of the difference between the work of the kids and the mature artists.

Such was the case with Steplight-Tillet’s video piece.

“You get a sense of real intimacy, but then who is this video for? It’s clearly her. She kisses herself –only she would be able to take that image –but it also captures, because we get such an insider’s view, we get to see how much Black girls love themselves before something else happens, before society does something to it,” Tillet said. “What’s so great about that video is it’s full of love of self and appreciation of self without being harmed yet or tainted by others, the gaze of others.”


“The work around COVID is work made by Black girls about Black girlhood. You see the loss of girlhood in some of in some of the work,” Lopez-Diago said, particularly referencing Cara Star Tyner’s, a middle schooler from the Bronx, Old Childhood Memories. “She places her Barbie doll in her hallway–she lives in an apartment building–and her best friend lives across the hall, but she can’t see her friend because of COVID. So it’s these two Barbie dolls in the hallway. These are moments that only Black girls living through the experience would be able to capture in that way.”


With another mass killing of Black people in America by a white supremacist earlier this month and the U.S. Supreme Court seemingly on the verge of taking away a bedrock piece of women’s reproductive rights, what do the curators–both Black women–see as the future for Black girls?

“I can’t say this is not a hard, hard time right now especially when we do this work with children,” Tillet said.

She was particularly moved by Roxane Gay’s recent opinion column in the New York Times following the Uvalde, TX massacre which asked what it means to live in a country which doesn’t protect its children.

“I often feel that way. This is my life’s work that I’m dedicated to doing, empowering Black girls, so the show is personal,” Tillet said. “We are trying to present different ways of intervening telling this story and showing the humanity of Black girls so that we can all do what we need to do to protect them, to advocate for them. The fight continues. That’s, the only thing that I know to do being a Black person who’s never really had full rights. Even though we are challenged today, that unfortunately has been the narrative. I know nothing else other than that in this country. I do know it’s going to be a harder fight, but I think that we are up for it. We have no choice. We’ll fight until freedom actually happens.”

Perhaps the girls in the show, standing on the shoulders of those who came before, will be the ones to see it occur.

“There are so many girls in the show that when I hear them speak, it gives me hope,” Lopez-Diago said. They are so in command. They’re so sure of themselves–these are powerful young people–that is what gives me hope, seeing them, hearing them speak, it shines a little candle in the darkness.”