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Poetry in Action at Teens Take the Met

Maya Valladares
October 9, 2015

Artist Fred Wilson (right) and teen poets Imani, Aaya, and Cassandra discuss an artwork in the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. All photographs by Filip Wolak

«Next Friday, October 16, from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., dozens of cultural and community organizations and over two thousand teens will gather at the Met for our third Teens Take the Met event. This teen night, open to any teen ages 13 and up, is an explosion of creativity and fun.»

At this event—which is part giant multi-arts workshop, part open house—young people will transform the Met and get a taste of the many different activities they can get involved with year-round at organizations all over the city. Want to make a sculpture or show your moves as a dancer? Check. Write a zine and connect with others who are passionate about social justice? Check. Wander around the galleries to see great art? Check.

Imani and Aaya view portraits of Diego Bemba, servant of Don Miguel de Castro, emissary of Soyo and Dom Miguel de Castro, emissary of Soyo

My colleagues and I have been busy working with teens in planning for the event, including a special collaboration with Lincoln Center Education, artist Fred Wilson, and a group of teens who will perform their own spoken-word poetry at Teens Take the Met. The small group of teen poets began visiting the Museum in early September and have been rehearsing for their performance ever since.

The teenagers meet regularly to workshop ideas, edit drafts, and begin new material, and all of this work is inspired by visits to the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty (on view through January 3, 2016), the European Paintings galleries, and other artworks in the Met's collection that spark their imagination. Mentored by Wilson and poet Josė Olivarez, the teens explore the hidden, erased, and simply untold stories found in artworks throughout the Museum. In Olivarez's words, they are "thinking a lot about whose history gets told, how it gets told, whose story is left out, and what those absences tell us."

Fred Wilson talks to the teen poets about some of the masks on view in the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty

The idea for the project came from Wilson himself, who remembers performing a play in the Medieval Art galleries when he was a teenager. He has a long history with the Met, beginning with those classes, later returning as a teaching artist, and now, again, as an established artist and teller of complex stories. During the group's sessions together, he guides the conversation, and together they find new ways of looking at, questioning, and thinking about art.

These are some of the questions they've been exploring:

  • How does the Museum change when you are searching for the nonobvious stories?
  • How can altering the title or text describing an artwork affect what you see in it?
  • How does it feel when you see something that contradicts the version of history you've been told?

Cassandra, Aaya, and Imani take notes in the exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty

I'm no poet, so I struggle to convey the power of the conversations I've been a part of, but the teens are; they are amazing wordsmiths. Their voices will fill the Kongo galleries—bouncing off of the wood and metal of the power figures and across centuries of history—on the evening of October 16.

Related Event
Teen Night: Teens Take the Met (Ages 13–18)
Friday, October 16, 5:00–8:00 p.m.
Ruth and Harold D. Uris Center for Education (Show location on map)
Free for teens ages 13–18; Museum admission not required

Maya Valladares

Maya Valladares is an assistant educator for public programs and creative practice in the Education Department.