Through Feb. 22, 2022 | NC Museum of Art, Raleigh
There’s a certain coming-of-age experience that’s well-documented, especially in music and the movies. It’s the story of the spunky white girl, or the loner white boy, or the reckless, vaguely diverse teens whose experiences feel years ahead of what high school is actually like.
Usually, these stories are made by people who’ve seen a lot of daylight since their youth, and you’d be hard-pressed to find art that focuses, not just on what it means to grow up, but on who gets to be shown doing it.
Maya Brooks, the curator of a new exhibition at the NC Museum of Art, knows this well. Brooks, who got her B.A. in 2018 from UNC-Chapel Hill and her M.A. in 2020 from UNC-Greensboro, came up with the idea for To Be Young as she made the transition into her first post-grad job.
“I just graduated from grad school and I was like, ‘I am going through so many emotions,” Brooks says. “I put a lot of that emotion—that idea of transition, of growing up, of changing—into this exhibition. It was partly for the public, and partly for myself.”
To Be Young: Coming of Age in the Contemporary, on view through next February in NCMA’s West Building, uses 23 pieces of photography, painting, and sculpture from the museum’s permanent collection to tell a story about adolescence.
The thoughtful exhibit reminds viewers that “coming of age” isn’t a uniform experience—it’s shaped by race, place, and gender. It’s sometimes playful and can be painful. It’s also beautiful.
Brooks, who is Black, also made an effort to showcase diverse artists from the museum collection. Each museum wall has some art focused on Black or Latinx childhood experiences, and not the ones we tend to see in television and movies, which often favor depictions of children of color experiencing interpersonal violence or generational trauma.
“There are so many other aspects to [growing up Black] that include just being happy, playing, being kids,” Brooks says. “I wanted to definitely throw that in there: We also have these narratives. It’s not only about white suburban kids.”
The photograph “Blanca” is emblematic of that joy. The Luis Rey Velasco piece shows a young Latina beaming while she holds up a bug for the photographer. Instead of relying on storylines about immigration or living in poverty, Blanca is allowed to be as happy as the three white children in “Children Singing in the Rain,” a photograph across the room, who are shouting exuberantly into a storm.
To the left of “Children” is the largest photo in the exhibit. “Devonte,” by the Durham photographer Titus Brooks Heagins, captures a moment of rare childhood stillness. In the photo, a Black toddler is surrounded by lush English Ivy. He looks as if someone photographed him in the midst of playing pretend in the woods behind his house, stopping him long enough that he could look, for just a second, before disappearing back into childhood.
Brooks says that while she had a fairly easy time curating Black and Latinx art, the permanent collection at the museum is still predominantly made up of art by white men. Even her presence here, Brooks notes, is still novel in the museum world.
“When I was growing up, there was only one Black woman curator that I could look to—Ms. Johnnetta B. Cole at the Smithsonian,” she says. “Now there are so many of us and it’s so nice to see us in these spaces and say ‘Hey, I can do this work.’”
Some of the featured artists are young, too. Photographers Jaylan Rhea and Faith Couch, for instance, were born in 1994 and 1997, respectively. Through their eyes, the often-elusive experience of growing up feels honest and intimate.
“We don’t often get that chance to experience our stories on the wall,” Brooks says. “We might get it at a lecture or a presentation or some other thing but we’re not represented fully in the physical space. I wanted to do that as my first step into this work.”
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