The Black Girlhood Altar Implores Us to Remember

CHICAGO — Black women in general experience the world differently from those who are not Black and female. It’s a truth that seems almost too obvious to acknowledge. And yet, it’s worth examining how every facet that makes up Black girlhood contributes to its uniqueness. From how Black women dress and maintain their hair to how we are perceived by the world and how we are expected to process our feelings, it all makes for an experience that is at once wide ranging and hyper-specific. Freedom Square: The Black Girlhood Altar is a tribute to those infinite yet oft-unseen stories of Black girlhood. 

The exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center opens with the installation “Homegoing.” The work is a suspended image depicting a screenshot from Ma’Khia Bryant’s personal TikTok. In the photo she’s laying her edges, her jet-black hair shining, her baby face clean and free of makeup. Below the printed photo is a collection of candles, stuffed animals, and a bouquet. On April 20, 2021, Ma’Khia was killed by an Ohio police officer in what was later determined a justifiable homicide. She was 16 years old. 

Altars connect the living to the dead, the past to the present. A Long Walk Home, the creative force behind the exhibition, is a Chicago-based nonprofit committed to ending violence against women and girls. In their own words, “The Black Girlhood Altar is a multimedia, artifact-based, video, and object-based artwork to create sacred spaces and honor the lives of Black girls and young Black women who have gone missing or been murdered.” Ma’Khia isn’t alone in the exhibition. She’s joined by images of and tributes to Rekia Boyd, Latasha Harlins, “Hope,” “Harmony,” Marci Gerald, Lyniah Bell, Breonna Taylor, and other missing and murdered Black women and girls.

Despite the subject matter, the three-gallery exhibition endeavors to present a mutilayered image of Black girlhood beyond trauma alone. One standout is Shaquita Reed’s “For the Culture Product” (2021) a clear rain jacket whose pockets are filled with hair accessories and beauty supplies. The neon objects are instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever spent a Saturday morning in a beauty supply or all day at a salon getting a perm. Images by Nydia Blas and Danielle Nolen depict Black women swimming and communing together. Vintage photos of women and girls by Gordon Parks and Chester Higgins Jr. remind us that before our matriarchs were our mothers, they were little girls. In the gallery titled Rest and Recess: The Courtyard, the exhibition transports the viewer to the Caribbean where Black girls play together unburdened and hopeful. A tree, sculpted by Robert Narciso and made from branches from Rekia Boyd’s family home, sits in the center of the room casting a protective shadow over everything. From its branches hang yellow paper hearts scribed with the hopes and dreams of little Black girls. The sound of their joyful cacophony activates the space.

Gently but unflinchingly, the exhibition treads through more painful subjects. The final gallery, Rituals and Prayer, houses the eponymous altar. The wide-ranging showpiece of iconic items of Black girlhood is a collection of community offerings gathered over the monument’s travels throughout various Chicago neighborhoods. Initially conceived in 2021, over the years the altar has grown and collected individual artifacts of girlhood like dolls, make-up, stuffed animals, jewelry, and more. The ghost of girlhood, anyone’s and everyone’s, is present in each item. The back wall displays necklaces and lockets containing the pictures and names of missing Black girls and women. Leah Gipson’s neon sign hangs over the installation. Speaking for the women and girls who are no longer with us, she implores viewers to forget them not.

Lighthearted at some points, soul-crushingly poignant at others, the exhibition embodies the wistful nostalgia of time past in all its complexity. In one way or another, all Black women can see themselves in their entirety in this exhibition. 

Freedom Square: The Black Girlhood Altar continues at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois) through March 10. The exhibition was organized by A Long Walk Home.

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