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The Age of Innocence

images from "Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility" an international exhibition on view during the spring at Express Newark in Newark.
Top row from left: “Rural Family Girlhood,” Doris Derby, 1968; “Sister, Sister,” Stevia Ndoe, 2018; “Playing Mas on the Savannah Stage,” Scheherazade Tillet, 2020; Untitled, Carrie Mae Weems, 1990. Middle row from left: “Girlfriends Times Two,” Lorraine O’Grady, 2009; “Queen of the Band,” Scheherazade Tillet, 2020; “Cousins,” Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, 1979; “Asia’s Big Reveal for Her Little Cousins,” Scheherazade Tillet, 2019. Bottom row from left: “Young Girl, Farish Street,” Doris Derby, 1968; “Looking Out,” Deborah Jack, 2016; “Nineteen,” Ángelina Cofer, 2021; “Sophisticated Soul,” Kahran Bethencourt, 2017.

Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility, a stirring exhibition at Express Newark, is a celebration of youth and coming-of-age.

Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility was an international exhibition on view during the spring at Express Newark in Newark. It presented intimate, joyful images of Black girls’ coming-of-age, told through the photography and film of Black women and genderqueer artists. Their work, reflecting many decades, generations, and settings, was juxtaposed with images taken by Black girls themselves, sharing their experiences and perspectives and underscoring their agency over their young lives. Picturing Black Girlhood, curated by photographers Scheherazade Tillet and Zoraida Lopez-Diago, filled all three exhibition floors of Express Newark—a “third space” for students, artists, and activists that brings together the communities of Rutgers University–Newark and the city through socially engaged art and design.

Salamishah Tillet, left, is the executive director of Express Newark, and Nick Kline, center, is the creative director. Scheherazade Tillet, right, the sister of Salamishah, curated Picturing Black Girlhood, along with Zoraida Lopez-Diago.
Salamishah Tillet, left, is the executive director of Express Newark, and Nick Kline, center, is the creative director. Scheherazade Tillet, right, the sister of Salamishah, curated Picturing Black Girlhood, along with Zoraida Lopez-Diago.
Photography by Nick Romanenko

The exhibit featured roughly 180 works by more than 80 artists, ranging in age from 8 to 94. Among the established artists showing were Carrie Mae Weems, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lorraine O’Grady, Lola Flash, Sophia Nahli Allison, Deborah Roberts, and Tawny Chatmon.

The exhibition spaces brimmed with images and stories, demonstrating the endless manifestations, and possibilities, of Black girlhood. Girls were pictured in their bedrooms; applying make-up; hamming it up with girlfriends; preparing for proms; leading a parade. All told, the exhibition was the largest display of images of Black girls ever.

The exhibition opened in February, coinciding with the Seventh Annual Black Portraiture[s]: Play and Performance. The three-day conference explored the theme of play and performance in past and contemporary African diasporic art and performance, and concluded with a series of keynote conversations during the 42nd Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture, held at the Newark Museum of Art.

Express Newark is under the new leadership of Salamishah Tillet as executive director and Nick Kline as creative director. Tillet, a 2022 winner of a Pulitzer Prize, is the Henry Rutgers Professor of African American Studies and Creative Writing at Rutgers–Newark. Kline, associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media at Rutgers–Newark, works in photography, artists’ books, installations, and socially engaged art. He is the founding director of Shine Portrait Studio in Newark.