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Meet the teen curators behind the MFA’s ‘Black Histories, Black Futures’ exhibition

Jadon Smith “fell in love at first sight” with Archibald Motley’s “Cocktails.”Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

“The C6” isn’t the title of a comic about fictional mutants. Nor is it the shorthand for a medical procedure.

It’s the self-given nickname for a group of six teenagers who curated the Museum of Fine Arts’ “Black Histories, Black Futures” exhibition, which opened Jan. 20.

The show features 50-something paintings and works on paper, each chosen by this group of Black, Latinx, and Asian-American teens from the Boston area. Not only did “The C6” select work by 20th-century Black artists, they also crafted wall text to accompany each piece. Set to adorn museum walls for 18 months, these artworks come from the MFA’s permanent collection and the National Center of Afro-American Artists.


Makeeba McCreary, the MFA’s chief of learning and community engagement, said the new teen-curated exhibition program was created as part of “some intentional outreach.”

These young people “had really never been in the museum," she said. "They didn’t think of it as a place that they would come to. We want to become a place that feels open and inviting and welcoming to absolutely every young person, every citizen really in the city of Boston. And we acknowledge that there are communities that do not feel that that’s true.”

Plans for a teen-curated exhibition were hatched in 2017, long before a group of Dorchester middle-schoolers endured racism during a trip to the museum last spring. The MFA connected with its young curators through partnerships with the nonprofits Becoming a Man, the BASE, and the Bloomberg Arts Initiative Program. Together, the teens kicked off their paid internships last July. Their exhibition is part of the museum’s 150th anniversary celebration.

The Globe caught up with four of “The C6” curators at the museum recently to ask about the art they chose for the exhibit, which is divided into four themes. Curators Alejandro Flores and Jingsi Li both graduated from high school in May and were unavailable for the interview.


Jennifer Rosa

Jennifer Rosa selected Richard Yarde's 1989 painting "Savoy: Leon & Willa Mae."Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Jennifer Rosa, 18, curated the exhibition’s “Smile in the Dark” section, with a collection of photographs and works on paper depicting Black families “being happy in a time when it wasn’t easy to be,” she explained. “They are living their best lives,” Rosa said. "It shows the beauty in being Black instead of all the bad stuff you hear.”

One of Rosa’s favorite works, 1989′s “Savoy: Leon & Willa Mae” by Richard Yarde, shows two Black people dancing. The watercolor painting and its striking yellow background emanate sunshine and peace, Rosa said. She also admires a 1976 Dawoud Bey photo of two young Black girls, clad in wide-leg jeans and posing before a Harlem ice cream shop.

A lifelong lover of science, the John D. O’Bryant High School senior always envisioned a career mixing chemicals or documenting wildlife. But the internship has her considering a double-major in art. And she thinks her generation’s love for art can only grow with more outreach and teen-curated shows like this one.

“People feel like art in my age group is dying,” Rosa said. “But it never really did. It’s still there.”

Jadon Smith

Archibald Motley's "Cocktails," painted circa 1926.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Jadon Smith loves three things: music, color, and comedy.

So the 17-year-old Dorchester resident found a way to thread them into the section he curated, titled “Ubuntu: I Am Because You Are.” A junior at O’Bryant High School, Smith collected paintings that showed people playing instruments, gathering for meals, laughing together, and indulging in leisure activities. Each piece is drenched in a vibrant or monochromatic color scheme. “There’s no in-between in terms of color,” he explained. “Colors speak to me, so go big.”


He added that three of the works in his display have never been shown publicly before. “This exhibition allowed us to put those artists’ hard work and dedication on view for the public to see,” Smith said, beaming.

Out of all the pieces, Smith said he “fell in love at first sight” with Archibald Motley’s “Cocktails,” created circa 1926. The six women in the painting are chatting in a lavish room; one is slumped in a chair to the side; and another stares at the viewer sadly. Smith said he imagines the plain-faced woman is wallowing after an explosive fight with her husband.

Despite years of studying percussion and performing marimba, Smith plans to study psychology in college, with curation being a backup.

Armani Rivas

Armani Rivas picked a James Van Der Zee photo from World War I. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

A photograph by James Van Der Zee, taken around 1916, captures World War I’s 369th Infantry Regiment mourning one of its own in Harlem. When Armani Rivas first saw the image, he noticed the word “dyeing” on a storefront in the background.

“It gives kind of a contrast,” Rivas, 17, said of the signage. “It makes me wonder was this just a coincidence or was this actually trying to signify that African-Americans were dying or weren’t earning the respect they deserve?”


The O’Bryant High School junior curated the exhibition’s “Normality Facing Adversity” section. Like Smith, Rivas plans to pursue some blend of art and psychology in the future. Recently, he began exploring painting as a hobby — “I become a little bit obsessed,” he admitted.

Destiny Santiago-Mitchell

Destiny Santiago-Mitchell picked Maria Auxiliadora da Silva's "Chuva Sobre São Paulo (Rain Over São Paulo)" for her section.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (custom credit)/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Destiny Santiago-Mitchell compiled vibrantly colored paintings of busy urban areas for her “Welcome to the City” section. The pillars surrounding her display are wrapped with song lyrics — think Prince’s “Baltimore” or The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City" — that influenced the Wellesley High School senior’s curatorial decisions. Of all the art she selected, her favorite is the festive “Rain Over São Paulo,” painted in 1971 by Brazil’s Maria Auxiliadora da Silva.

“I never would have thought that I would be able to have an opportunity like this," said Santiago-Mitchell, 17, who felt more comfortable giving a prepared statement. “It’s been really cool to see an idea of mine come to life.”


Through June 20. At the Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. 617-267-9300. mfa.org

Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ditikohli_