Art Museum of the University of Memphis
September 19, 2014 – November 26, 2014
Juvenile-in-Justice: Photographs by Richard Ross was on view last fall at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis (AMUM) last fall.
More than aesthetically pleasing compositions, Ross’ project explored the living histories of over 1,000 children and teenagers at over 200 institutions in 31 states. An experienced photographer and a recipient of both the prestigious Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, Ross contextualized his images with captivating text and excerpts from interviews. Rich in content, the exhibition leaned heavily to the documentary side of photography—providing the viewer with what appeared to be a rather truthful depiction of America’s youth and their relationship with our legal system and state facilities.
Installed using pushpins on white walls in the main gallery of AMUM, at first glance, the set-up instilled the visitor with the feeling that they walked into a high-school art show. Without looking closer, one expected to see young artists with proud families in tow as they excitedly explain their artistic expressions to eager loved ones—the typical setting of such school presentations. Quickly, however, this feeling of warmth dissolved as the viewer explored the images; instead of youth showcasing their accomplishments, we were presented with works in which “imperfect youth” became the subject. Landscapes of austere architecture, genre scenes of everyday life in state facilities, and portraits of those subjected to these types of environments stared at us despite Ross’ careful avoidance of faces. Perhaps a method of preserving the futures of his subjects, the lack of visages confronts us with the uneasy juxtaposition of anonymity and intimacy.
The associated histories are widely varied. From a child born in a correctional facility who has returned to the custody of the state, to a 15-year-old explaining the role of gang life in their world, the majority of voices reflected individuals who come from vastly different backgrounds than those of your typical museum-goer. Difficult to read—and especially to give each background the consideration it deserves—these lives are opened up for us to connect with. Beneath the facades of “troubled youth,” we discover the resilience of children in solitary confinement, the plasticity of adaption to one’s environment (often times a necessity of survival), and above all, hope. Far from the mundane view of society that decrees juveniles’ prospects to be over once they are placed in a facility, this exhibition reveals a spirit capable of overcoming a start in life that, at its very most, is disadvantaged.
As I pushed my six-month old baby girl in her stroller from image to image, silently reading what is every parent’s nightmare, I contemplated a future in which these types of facilities are a reality if my child makes a mistake in the folly that is inherently youth. As a parent, one hopes that their child will abide by the law not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because they fear for their child’s future. As I begin to save for her college education, it strikes me as horribly wrong that one year of forced living in a state facility is often times more expensive than four years of tuition to a private university or college. I wondered at the irony that saw images of these young members of society in the type of environment that they really belonged—an institution of higher learning, perhaps even in the museum.
Regardless of how you think you will respond to this exhibition, or if you’ve decided that you’ve had enough of the Orange is the New Black fad, this show deserves your attention. Especially in the Mid-South, where youth issues are so critical, we must remove ourselves from the Kroger and face the reality of what our young members of society experience.-Dr. Genevieve Hill-Thomas is a specialist in African art and serves on the board of Number: Inc.