When the pen is in my hand, what will I write? When the camera’s viewfinder meets my eye, what will I see and capture? How will I leave an impact on this world through my stories and images?

These are a few of the questions that we at The Beautiful Project in Durham ask Black girls and women.

For fifteen years, we’ve worked to cultivate voice and power among Black girls and women to own their narratives and to tell their stories. We exist to challenge the narratives that misrepresent and misuse our likeness in the media and society. We do this work under the pillars of sisterhood and care, recognizing the power of collectivity, community, and belonging.

It is our committed intention to create spaces for Black girls and women to simply be, to feel valued, and to be seen as our full selves.

In December 2019, we launched an exhibition of some these stories and images at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project encompasses our journey from the inception of our organization to present day.

There are 85 pieces in the show, including photographs, films, and writings from artists in our collective that mirror our everyday selves as Black girls and women. Thirty-five pieces were created by girls aged eight–15, the result of a year-long program in which they learned photography and writing skills and created their own projects based on how they see the world.

In January, we brought the cohort of 14 girls and their families to experience the magnitude of their work being shown in one of the most significant and prominent art museums in the world. It is very special to witness this moment of The Beautiful Project’s journey.

This year, the Met celebrates 150 years since its opening in 1870, a time when the perspectives of Black girls and women were not valued or heard. Historically, and even now, the collections in the Met lean toward Eurocentric values and ideologies. While the museum has made strides toward inclusiveness over the years, its evolution does not readily and easily include the perspective of Black girls and women, particularly those who are not considered to be a part of the valued canon of artists that the museum usually displays.

Pen, Lens & Soul is a call and response to the multidimensional lives of Black girls and women. Our founder and executive director, Jamaica Gilmer, explains, “For a moment, we wanted to offer Black girls and women what it felt like to be at our house. This space of sisterhood that can include hope, that sometimes includes despair, where no one is perfect, but we are committed to trying. Together we created and declared that we can in fact see each other, and the world should see us too.”

The images and words on the walls of the Met depict us in our most natural state—we’re laughing, we’re thinking, we’re dancing and just free to be ourselves. Museum visitors from all over the world are able to walk the exhibition hallways and see Black girls and women fully present in our authentic entirety.

Pen, Lens & Soul: The Story of The Beautiful Project is on view through February 24 in the The Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Khayla Deans is a creative producer at The Beautiful Project. | @thebeautifulprj

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