In the years between the start of the 20th century and the mid-1970s, more than six million African Americans left the rural South in what is known as the Great Migration. Forced from their homes by limited economic opportunities and legalized segregation, they settled primarily in towns and cities in the North and West, creating a new Black urban culture.
At the Mississippi Museum of Art, the exhibition “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” explores the impact the Great Migration had on American families, communities, and society at large, as well as its continuing influence on social and cultural life in the United States today. The show was co-organized with the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The exhibition consists of newly commissioned works from 12 acclaimed Black artists with connections to the South: Akea Brionne, Mark Bradford, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates, Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Importantly, the show frames the Great Migration as not only a flight from economic and racial inequality, but also a move toward independence and self-invention. “[The exhibition] will posit migration as both a historical and political consequence, but also as a choice for reclaiming one’s agency,” according to co-curators Ryan N. Dennis and Jessica Bell Brown. “The works examine individual and familial stories of perseverance, self-determination, and self-reliance through a variety of expressions.”
Although the pieces in the exhibition range across media, they are largely researched based. “We asked this group of talented artists to join us on this journey over a year ago, during the pandemic, to investigate their connections to the South,” say the curators.
Not surprisingly, then, this research has resulted in art that often focuses on family. Combining large-scale photographs with archival images, Maryland-based conceptual artist Larry W. Cook, whose work explores intergenerational narratives about fatherhood and forgiveness, traces his own paternal lineage in a series of photographs that include landscapes, portraits, and family pictures. Conversely, New Orleans-born photographer Akea Brionne’s project An Ode to You (’all) (2021) addresses maternal family structures, centering on the lives of her great-grandmother and three great-aunts, who remained in the South and created a support system that enabled Brionne’s grandfather to pursue higher education. Woven jacquard in the form of sculptural and digitally collaged tapestries retraces her grandparents’ subsequent move from Mississippi to New Mexico.
Also focusing on family experiences, Oregon-born activist artist and 2013 McArthur Foundation Fellow Carrie Mae Weems—some of whose earliest pieces incorporated photographs and recordings of family members—turns her attention to her grandfather Frank Weems, a tenant farmer and union organizer in Arkansas who, after surviving an attack by a white mob in 1936, relocated to Chicago. She traces his journey north in a new video installation titled LEAVE! LEAVE NOW!! and The North Star (2022), a series of digital prints.
Closer to the present day, Baltimore-based artist Zoë Charlton’s Permanent Change of Station (2022), a large-scale installation featuring a wall drawing and a life-size pop-up book of collages and drawings, considers how military service enabled social advancement for families like her own, even during periods of American intervention in the Philippines and Vietnam. And Chicago social practice artist Theaster Gates’s The Double Wide, a 2022 sculptural installation with soundtrack, pays tribute to an uncle whose trailer functioned as a candy store by day and a juke joint at night.
Expanding the conversation from family to community, Los Angeles-born painter Mark Bradford contributes 500 (2022), an installation of 60 painted panels inspired by an early 20th-century Black settlement in New Mexico advertised as a safe and self-sufficient community for African Americans. New York City-based artist Robert Pruitt, known for his figurative drawings of Black subjects incorporating cultural signifiers drawn from hip-hop, science fiction, comic books, and religious practices, presents A Song for Travelers (2022), a large-scale drawing that takes as its subject his hometown of Houston, particularly its Third and Fourth wards.
Several works address Black communities in the context of global warming. Landscape is central to the narrative work of Kentucky-born, New York City-based multidisciplinary artist Allison Janae Hamilton; in her three-channel film installation A House Called Florida (2022), she explores the mutual dependence between the Southern environment and its Black inhabitants, and speculates on their respective fates in a changing climate. In a similar vein, Maryland artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s mixed-media collages consider the effect of natural disasters on Black migration. And Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist Torkwase Dyson’s installation of modular sculptures, Way Over There Inside Me (2022), examines the relationship between our current environmental crisis and plantation economies.
Conjuring the potentiality of Black culture, Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison’s video piece features Alabama-based actress Lakia Black and other performers acting out a variety of real and imagined identities. Similarly, the abstract sculptures in New Yorker Leslie Hewitt’s Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible) (2022) are informed by destabilization and movement. Both suggest that the Great Migration is a multivalent narrative that is still unfolding.
Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson, Apr. 9–Sept. 11, 2022; Baltimore Museum of Art, Oct. 30, 2022–Jan. 29, 2023.
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