Art on the Atlanta BeltLine launched its inaugural public art Residency Program in 2019. Multi-disciplinary in scope, ABI recently sat down with the program’s Curator-in-Residence, Courtney Brooks to learn more about her new public art exhibition, Journey of a Black Girl, which opens on March 14.
Music fills the empty space usually enlivened with the hum of hair dryers, clinging bracelets, laughter, and small talk. Colorful rows of chucky yarn woven into long tresses line the floor of Naturalz Salon as examples of the fun work ahead, while untouched spools, bangle bracelets, and clean, empty soup cans pile up close by. Muffled chatter from a curtained back room syncopates with the music, ricocheting across the former warehouse walls now adorned with glorious imagery of black female beauty. Smaller in stature than might be expected from the bold, confident energy she exudes, Courtney Brooks bustles around the hair salon that has generously offered to host one of the self-taught curator’s community-based braiding projects. Soon, the community will arrive, and the work will begin.
When selected as Art on the Atlanta BeltLine’s first Curator-in-Residence, the Colorado native was between curating gigs, having just completed her first gallery project at the ArtsXchange’s new location in East Point. An artist whose solo work includes fresh portrayals of Haitian life, she had fallen into curation while bartending at CLOUD IX in Atlanta’s art district, Castleberry Hill. What began as a singular opportunity to display her own work in the window, escalated into showcasing the work of other artists and then curating entire shows.
Brooks laughs as she recalls the impetus that propelled her down her present course. “My boss asked me one day, ‘Are you going to keep living for my dream or are you going to go out and live your own?’”
She began teaching art classes, leading “paint and sip” events, and immersing herself in Atlanta’s art community. With a natural gift for building relationships, it was not long before people started reaching out to her to collaborate. Her first show in 2017—a tribute to Biggie—featured 25 artists from as far away as California. Her next show was smaller with 15 artists and focused on Tupac.
“I love helping other artists and giving them a platform to share,” says the hip-hop fan. “I feel like I need to be able to connect with the artist and the work. I want to share narratives that I’m passionate about, and I know can change someone’s point of view in a positive light or create new relationships. So I’m all about connecting, building a bridge for new perspectives.”
The Art on the Atlanta BeltLine Residency Program presented an opportunity for Brooks to expand from gallery and pop-up exhibitions to public art. “I do so much for everybody. I wanted to do this for me.”
Constantly stimulated by art, her ideas for her first public art show floated from fitness, fashion, or an encouragement garden before they finally landed on something more personal. While working in Brooklyn alongside other black women for artist Charmaine Minniefield’s public mural, Brooks realized the synergetic experience of sharing stories that speak true for her, and what that could mean for her activation on the Atlanta BeltLine.
“[These are] stories I can share with other women who look like me. We all kind of have the same journey, especially in the creative field. How can I put that together on the BeltLine, be representative of my community and show what it’s like growing up as a black girl and transitioning into a woman in the creative field? I wanted to share my story as well as other black girls’ stories.”
Thus, was born Journey of a Black Girl (JOABG), a curatorial narrative that shares the tension from adolescence to womanhood from a black woman’s creative point of view through various visual installations. Divided into three phases, the exhibition features visual and performing arts by artists of the African diaspora and explores the space of the transitions, identity, self-love, and sisterhood.
The Hair Day community-based braiding project is a major part of this. The idea for the Hair Day workshops came while Brooks was doing a site visit of the Atlanta BeltLine, not far from where she used to live, in preparation for her Southside Trail exhibition—the first art activation since the unpaved trail opened last summer. Told that she could hang things from the bridge, she wanted to display braids with beads hanging from the bridge, just out of reach so as not to be touched. A nod to the cultural importance of hair as well as the 2019 Crown Act, “This Crown Belongs to Us” was a perfect opportunity to invite the community in to help weave the braids.
“We are so involved with our hair, even as children. We adorn ourselves with hairstyles. I wanted the community to come out and feel that they were a part of it too. They will have something that’s tangible and will be able to come to the BeltLine and say, ‘I created that!’”
Wrapping one of the teal yarn braids around her for a photoshoot, Brooks owns the spotlight. She’s not a diva; she’s a powerhouse who has found strength, purpose, and creative energy in owning her own truth: “I realized I needed to speak my truth and stop holding things back because I was worried about what people were thinking.”
“I had a hair journey,” she recounts. Raised in a predominately white environment, Brooks acquired her culture from her parents, movies, books, magazines, and attending art festivals.
“When I was about five, my mom asked me if I wanted a perm, a relaxer, or a jheri curl… I didn’t even know what that was! I just knew I did not want a curl, so I boldly said, ‘A perm!’”
Assimilated to think she had to have straight, long hair, it wasn’t until she went to college at Texas Southern University, an historically black university (HBCU), and met one of her longtime friends who wore her hair shaved—“I never knew a woman could be so beautiful!”—did she begin to question her own hair. She grew out her relaxed hair, went natural, and then went home.
“My dad was like, ‘Who are you? What have you done with my daughter?’”
After about 20 years of “going natural,” she decided to do locks. Almost twelve years later, that’s still the look she’s sporting.
“With this exhibition, I wanted to highlight the different hair journeys I’ve gone through and that a lot of black women have gone through. We change our hair up all the time. It makes you feel good.”
Cognizant that young girls will attend the exhibition as well, Brooks’ penchant for encouragement shines through in her careful curatorial selections, which include an interactive clubhouse safe space, a music performance by Georgia State students, and affirming activations around responsible representation, healing, and self-expression.
Brooks warmly greets the first of her Hair Day volunteers, artist Angela Davis Johnson, who will be performing in JOABG Phase II, before turning back to finish her thought.
“I want them to walk away with confidence and knowing that they can be that too. Embracing your texture and knowing that you don’t have to change for anybody, you can just be yourself.”
JOURNEY OF A BLACK GIRL
Phase I: What Little Black Girls Are Made Of
Date: March 14, 2020 @ 2-5pm *Rain or Shine
Where: Southside Trail Entrance at Glenwood and Bill Kennedy
Phase II: I’m Every Woman
Date: March 21, 2020 @ 3-6pm
Where: Southside Trail – Milton Ave
Phase III: Black Girl Magic
Date: April 4, 2020 @ 3-6pm
Where: Southside Trail – 1015 Boulevard
 First introduced in California in January 2019, the CROWN Act is a law that ensures protection against discrimination based on hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and protective styles in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and state Education Codes. https://www.thecrownact.com/
Learn more about the Residency Program at art.beltline.org/residency