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From Jackson to Baltimore: “Great Migration” is a Bittersweet Homecoming

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“America is a place of opportunity and upward mobility for some people, but not for everyone,” said Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, at the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) on April 9, 2022. “If we cannot solve these problems in the South, we cannot fix America.”

This statement came out of a panel discussion hosted by the MMA, where Walker and exhibiting artist Mark Bradford discussed the potential for contemporary art to address historic American issues of inequality, many of which are typically associated with Southern states’ histories of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-Blackness, but are not unique to the South.

The exhibit, A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, curated by Jessica Bell Brown (BMA) and Ryan Dennis (MMA) features new work by twelve Black American artists exploring their own historical and familial relationship to the Great Migration. It has now moved from the MMA to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) as a co-curated project, on view there through January 29, 2023. Although it’s installed differently and Baltimore offers a new context for the research-driven work, Walker’s statements made during the opening weekend in Mississippi are no less potent: The South’s problems remain at the core of America’s problems as a whole.

The Great Migration, a movement of six million Black Southerners to the North and West from 1916 to 1970, is a central American story but it has been largely undocumented by historians, archivists, and left out of art history, with Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration Series existing as a singular standoutuntil now. Movement is a groundbreaking exhibition about the promise of upward mobility and the sacrifices endured by Black Americans to realize a safer and more stable life. It is also an opportunity to consider our collective past, present, and future through the personal lens of family history from those who experienced it directly.

Movement features newly commissioned works by American artists with Southern ties selected by Bell Brown and Dennis. Each artist was given significant support and time to research their own family history in relation to the Great Migration in order to create new works of art about their discoveries. The process took over a year and included globally recognized artists (Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Pruitt), as well as rising stars (Leslie Hewitt, Allison Janae Hamilton, Torkwase Dyson, Stephani Jemison), of whom a handful are affiliated with Washington, DC and Baltimore (Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Akea Brionne, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook).

The site specificity of Southern roots against the backdrop of American history, as well as the personal nature of this research, lends a palpable sense of fresh discovery, a sense of newness and energy if disparate stories—perhaps forgotten and neglected for many years but now sparkling and bright refreshed from this deep digging—endeavor into our own murky and circuitous pasts, lost names and places, purposefully forgotten or hidden traumas and bitter disappointments, resignation to live better and do better, to leave it all behind.

The artists are not only creating innovative constructions and beautiful objects to look at, they’re rewriting their own history, based on research. As part of this intensive process, the participating artists traveled to ancestral lands, looked up old records and newspaper articles, dug into scrap books and keepsakes in dusty boxes and in attics and basements where objects, documents, and photos of unfamiliar faces were unearthed. The surprises came from revelations about their own family members, from finding stories they always believed were just rumors, and understanding why it all came to happen. The sum total outcome of the exhibit is that these artists, and with them the audiences who see the show, can feel more connected to the past and each other, part of something much larger.

I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi for three days in April 2022 for the opening weekend to experience the exhibition within the context and culture of one of America’s oldest Southern cities, and amongst the artists, curators, and supporters for whom this exhibit is extraordinarily special. Now that it is displayed in the BMA’s cavernous Thallheimer gallery, it’s fascinating to see these works not only installed differently to create a nuanced narrative, but to witness Baltimore City audiences’ enthusiastic response to it, even our collective sense of claiming ourselves to be a part of the Upper South, just shy of the Mason-Dixon line.

 

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At the Baltimore Museum, the curatorial team was afforded a linear space with glistening concrete floors, in which they could plan a progression with a succinct beginning and end, compared to a radial design at the MMA, where a circular focus placed sculpture in the middle and spaces for film at the edges.

Rather than attempting to tell the story in a chronological or literal fashion, at the BMA the works are installed based on formal characteristics, where visual cues and material culture riff upon one another and the three video installations are given different treatments, although each is cinematically displayed in a unique theatrical space.

 

Mark Bradford’s "500" and Torkwase Dyson’s "Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches)" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

A huge, four-part black plexiglass sculpture dominates the first gallery upon entering. Torkwase Dyson’s “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches),” could be a time machine, portal, or a vortex from which to record or share stories, with long black tubes creating connections between four slightly-larger-than-human boxes, suggesting the distortions that happen as information travels through space and time.

There is a distinctly sci-fi quality to this piece, and it beckons you to enter it, with a desire to be immersed in a new world. You can gaze through the dark tinted surface, which distorts and transforms visual and auditory information, even the artwork around it, and it references historic brutalist structures while mirroring the complicated process of perception. As you attempt to peer through the dark haze, you are met with a semi-permeable barrier: you can still see through it, but it requires some effort. The sculpture offers minimalist forms, geometric shapes, and the promise of fabricated space, but it also feels like a pathway where you can be enveloped and transformed, much like experiencing a new and poignant history.

 

detail, Mark Bradford’s “500”

It would be difficult for most works of art to compete with this monumental piece, but Mark Bradford’s “500,” manages to hold the space nearby while also echoing Dyson’s abstraction. As part of his research process, Bradford dug into a collection of historic magazines saved from his mother’s Los Angeles beauty shop and he honed into one tiny detail hidden in the back of one. He noticed a small advertisement, “Wanted: Black families” to move to a new town in New Mexico called Blackdom–a town with no Jim Crow laws, where Black people could live freely.

Bradford took the small black and white advertisement, enlarged it, repeated it into embossed panels with the original text and font. But his reproductions look like scorched metal, in shades of red, orange, black with alternating slick and matte surfaces, created with bleach. Undulating and assembled into a monumental wall relief that towers and fills your peripheral vision, “500” stretches out like a landscape full of promise, albeit one that’s burnt. Additional research reveals that the town, Blackdom, no longer exists, but didn’t end in fire like Black Wall Street in Oklahoma. Instead, it lasted for a few years until the town wells dried up. The inhabitants were dispersed to new places, but its memory lives on through Bradford’s decision to highlight its existence.

 

Akea Brionne’s "An Ode To (You)'all" series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Sometimes fragments are all that you have, but the act of putting the pieces together, digging deeper into the records, is a meaningful act that is available to all of us.
Cara Ober

In the next gallery, subtler stories are presented by Akea Brionne and Leslie Hewitt. Telling her family’s history through digital jacquard weavings incorporating photos and handwritten text, Brionne personalizes each with hand-embellished beadwork and embroidery. Occasional frills and fringe riff on improvisational textile traditions, specifically the ‘mending’ required of working class families, presenting art that was never named as such—seldom deemed museum-worthy or archived—and served functional purposes, yet it contains artistic innovation within each stitch.

In a panel discussion at MMA, Brionne mentioned that her family had a Louisiana Creole background, and she incorporates the solemn faces of these men and children in the fields, and ladies with decorative pins in their hair in her wall hangings. Embedded in the woven material are irregular shapes that resemble fragments, outlines of the individual weavings are reminiscent of ripped-up photos, scraps of paper, or geographical boundaries—all references to the shreds of a history that has been erased. However, the loving embellishment—an occasional ruffle or fringe or beadwork—assigns value to these largely unknown faces and stories. Sometimes fragments are all that you have, but the act of putting the pieces together, digging deeper into the records, is a meaningful act that is available to all of us.

 

Leslie Hewitt’s "Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible)" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

It would be easy to overlook Leslie Hewitt’s understated mixed media floor sculptures including “Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible)” because there’s so much action on the walls, so it was essential for the curators to place her works carefully. Hewitt is the only artist whose pieces are installed in three separate spots in the exhibit, serving as connective tissue between disparate works and offering a meditative space for viewers, giving us visual puzzles to solve. Although they’re minimal—just steel beams and simple wooden forms, with the occasional glass, dish, or serving bowl—Hewitt’s sculptures are arranged with such precision that their opacity feels simultaneously vulnerable, an unusual balancing act for abstract work.

Within such a narrative exhibit, we expect a ‘story’ to reveal itself to us in each piece, as if each work of art offers a clue to solving a specific mystery, but it would be a mistake to approach Hewitt’s work this way. Hewitt’s materials, arranged simply on the floor, reference physical aspects of a home, with steel beams indicating the structure, the wooden forms representing the molding or furniture, and the domestic glass items, many in rich deep colors, indicating the personal items that we often value and use for entertaining or special occasions. Obviously, Hewitt’s ‘home’ is incomplete or in the process of being deconstructed, and you get a sense of the fleeting quality of the memories lost as the structure is pared down to a few basic objects.

If you can force yourself to experience this sense of loss and the questions that go along with it—abandoning the idea of one literal translation—they offer a deliberate sense of longing, of wanting more, wanting to fill and safeguard the space. But of course you can’t. It’s wide open, placed on the floor, offering no protection in the form of walls, tables, or shelves, which would physically elevate the individual pieces but remove their humility. Sitting on the floor, demanding you to look down and question your own cognitive abilities, Hewitt’s installations capture the conflicting feelings of finding one’s history and losing it at the same time, of having evidence but no conclusions, and this sense of calmness and loss poetically mimics the attempt to recreate one’s personal history and finding only scaffolding.

 

Robert Pruitt’s "A Song for Travelers" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

As you continue through the maze, Rob Pruitt’s larger-than-life, multi-figure charcoal drawing, “A Song for Travelers” depicts a wide variety of family ancestors in clothing from disparate time periods, functioning like a solemn gathering of elders in a clean white space. It conjures a magical realism and sense of time travel, of elders’ past and the collective future they offer. Set atop an empty background, this vast family reunion exists in a private and safe space together.

Pruitt’s elegant charcoal rendering of gray skin contrasts with the intensely-colored clothing, delighting in the details of materials with a cheerleading uniform here, a military one here, a vest covered in American dollars here. The details in the clothing and objects they hold are an archive of distinct material culture, and contains myriad histories, each bursting with unique and specific stories to tell. Viewed altogether, a cacophony of narratives converges together like a holiday family dinner, where aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters talk to and over one another in a burst of energy.

 

Allison Janae Hamilton’s "A House Called Florida" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

As you turn the corner from Pruitt’s elegant, larger-than-life depiction, you are beckoned into a darkened theater with an immersive three channel film installation, offering an invitation to sit and stay a while on two shockingly comfortable bean bag chairs. Allison Janae Hamilton’s “A House Called Florida” is a passionate Southern vision that envelopes you across three undulating screens, offering aerial and water views of distinctive landscapes, both dreamy and haunted.

The chirping of birds and sounds of nature flex against human sounds—chanting, the rumble of motorcycles, drums—adding a mystical quality that often feels like a familiar homecoming. In one scene, Black figures wearing pointy white bird masks meander through a marshy wooded area; they pause and mimic one another in a vague ritual and then the screen glistens with white X’s, hand drawn and proliferating across the view like a universe full of stars. The images segue into sparkling aerial views of rivers and swamps, Spanish moss and water-logged pathways for humans or vehicles; we view a small Southern town out a car window, noting a variety of small but hardy businesses and scrappy industrial buildings, not abandoned but not thriving either.

Hamilton’s film captures a hallowed sense of beauty for all of these places, depicting the reality of those left behind in the South after their relatives left for new economic opportunities—and also the hungry longing for home, the fraught familiarity that those who made the difficult choice to migrate feel for the South. Overall, a sense of wonder connects these disparate scenes, which wash over you like waves of memory, offering a solemn space to appreciate a sensuous landscape full of ghosts.

 

Larry Cook, "Fairfield," from the series "Let My Testimony Sit Next To Yours" 2022
Larry Cook’s “Let My Testimony Sit Next to Yours” series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

In the next gallery, Larry Cook’s photography makes his editing process look easy, a generous gift where sharing the essence of a story without additional fuss or detail requires the viewer to connect the dots between divergent materials and images. On the walls, Cook’s large color photographs of benign-seeming Southern landscapes suggest familial memories; the artist traveled to these wooded and cotton-filled vistas to revisit the places his ancestors came from.

On a side wall, in front of a faux forest backdrop, a large, old-school photography studio portrait of an older man—titled “Pops” from the series Let my Testimony Sit Next to Yours—looms over an altar of sorts, a glass tabletop containing handwritten letters and old photographs. Another glass case holds the center of the room, and inside, three letters in different handwriting share similar messages from different time periods. In one, a father has been forced to leave his family to seek work to support them, and is writing to tell them how much he misses them. This space is easily the most emotionally poignant one in the show. The inclusion of the actual letters, and their pathos, speaks to so many families who have been separated and divided, where one member is forced to endure loneliness for years at a time, separate from kin and expressing this longing for them.

Cook’s previous bodies of work depicting incarcerated men and returning citizens, specifically fathers returning to their families, is a natural continuation of a subject the artist has explored for over a decade. His ability to take landscape images out of their usual context, to function as a metaphor for an ideal kept out of reach, is also at play in Movement. These natural scenes, photographed in a clean, neutral style, are raw and uninhabited. It’s unclear whether Cook’s own ancestors once occupied these lands or longed to, but the desire to put one’s feet where theirs once were too is a powerful and hopeful act.

 

Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s "This Water Runs Deep" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
“This Water Runs Deep” uses color, pattern, scraps of printed fabrics, glitter, and painted images to reference not just the comfort of one’s home but the ability of family to carry these gleaming memories for one another into brighter surroundings.
Cara Ober

Across from Cook’s quiet ruminations, Jamea Richmond-Edwards’ “This Water Runs Deep” is a celebratory riot of hot pink, gold, and rainbow color, where the artist and her ancestors are envisioned in a fantasy seascape, together in a boat and encircled by a protective dragon-like sea monster. This monumental, mixed media scene incorporates the visual with sound, and traces her family’s journey from Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, and Mississippi to the Midwest.

Although Richmond-Edwards was raised in Detroit, Michigan, her research for this exhibit revealed that her family faced as much adversity in the North after migration as they did in the South. As such, the artist recently purchased a property near Bolton, Mississippi, near the site of her family’s ancestral home in an effort to reclaim her heritage. In “This Water Runs Deep,” the artist paints herself into this journey where the water is choppy and rising, referencing more recent migrations caused by flooding and climate change, using color, pattern, scraps of printed fabrics, glitter, and painted images to reference not just the comfort of one’s home but the ability of family to carry these gleaming memories for one another into brighter surroundings.

 

Steffani Jemison’s "A*ray" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Steffani Jemison’s "A*ray" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

After flexing your muscles of comprehension with Cook’s work and submitting to the intensity of Richmond-Edwards’ fantasy vision, it’s a relief to enter a completely white room with soft carpet to experience Steffani Jemison’s single channel HD video. “A*ray” explores the quirky intricacies of modern communication, specifically the kinds of enthusiastic but abstract vernacular used in contemporary social media apps, like TikTok videos where music and acting merges with political messaging.

In “A*ray,” Jemison directs actress Lakia Black to embody a variety of different personalities via smartphone, projected huge, as a screen within the giant screen, often with Black’s hands scrolling through and stopping, rewinding and revisiting. It’s an abstract approach to the Great Migration story for the Brooklyn-based artist with Southern ties to the Carolinas and Alabama, where seemingly personal video messages reflect a range of emotions and vocabularies, pointing to the way cultures constantly change and pivot in response to one’s environment and resources.

 

Theaster Gates Jr.’s The Double Wide at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

Looming large and glowing with hot pink lights, Theaster Gates’ installation, “The Double Wide,” looks like a traveling circus combined with a farm stand, library, and juke joint. It functions like a mini-museum inside the exhibit and includes two wooden trailers on wheels with a lot of handmade signage resembling outsider art—the kinds of signage you see along small country roads.

The installation takes up a lot of physical and emotional space, brimming with esoteric, charming, and personal ephemera. Hot pink lights illuminate a towering wall of large jars of pickled things lined up in rows (peppers and onions and pig’s feet and other gnarly looking parts of pigs or possibly chicken feet?) which function like holy relics. “Pickld Jesus” is spelled out on a handmade wooden sign on the wall and you can enter the trailers, sit and watch video performance with sound, and examine the books, photos, and personal objects, all hinting at a robust culture full of food, music, spirituality, and stories just out of reach.

 

Carrie Mae Weems’s "Leave! Leave Now!" at the Mississippi Museum of Art, April 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Carrie Mae Weems, "The North Star," 2022, Inkjet prints

In a back alcove, Carrie Mae Weems offers a tragic family narrative about her grandfather, Frank Weems, a sharecropper and union organizer who was forced to flee the Dibble Plantation near Earle, Arkansas, to preserve his own life, leaving behind a wife and eight children. According to the museum text, “After an anti-union eviction, Weems was assaulted by a white mob and presumed dead on June 9, 1936.” However, he secretly escaped and followed the North Star to Chicago, the site of the only photo taken of Weems known to his family, where he is preparing to file a suit against those who attacked him. After this, he was never seen again.

In the photo installation, “The North Star,” his journey is depicted in seven oval-framed photos of the star centered in the night sky, proliferating in a row from small to medium to large and back again, reflecting the passage of time where the urgency and importance remains the same. Although the star glints brightly, offering hope, the flat blackness of the night sky emphasizes the mystery surrounding Frank, and his family’s inability to find him or learn more of his story.

Across from the framed photos, a dark door beckons with the video “Leave! Leave Now!” When you enter, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness but, once settled on a bench, you notice a stanchioned off stage area with glowing red curtains where vignetted black and white images and video fade in and out. The artist’s voice, authoritative and passionate, surrounds you. Her grandfather’s story is illustrated and amplified here, both personal and universal, full of fear and violence, demonstrating the desperation of his decision to leave his entire life behind and the tragedy of loss his family suffered. The historical “Pepper’s Ghost” format where images float at the center of a theatrical stage allows Weems’s visitors some distance from the rawness of her story, with the stanchions offering a physical barrier of safety, giving you a chance to process the story from a historical perspective as well as a personal one.

 

Zöe Charlton’s "Permanent Change of Station" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.

As you make your way towards the exit, “Permanent Change of Station,” a massive installation incorporating sculpture and drawing by Zoë Charlton, offers a satisfying and succinct conclusion to this complex and deeply moving exhibit.

In a narrative that contrasts with many of the others, Charlton explores her family’s history of military service, herself a military brat who moved around the country frequently, contrasting a sense of adventure and momentum with longing for her ancestral family home in Tallahassee, Florida. The property, now lost to a developer, serves as an ideal: a warm and comforting place. The installation features stylized, scrapbook-like tree cut-outs, flowers, and Spanish moss framing a giant wall drawing completed mostly in graphite. It depicts a stepped landscape evocative of Vietnam, where Levittown-styled housing tracts are inserted in contrasting geometric patterns.

The historic suburban housing developments were created after World War II for returning white veterans and their families, offering a chance at upward mobility for close to 100,000 people, but deliberately excluded Black veterans. A life-sized figure of a woman in a military uniform, holding a toy military plane aloft, surveys the landscape and we ponder the questions she must answer: how much one must give up in order to provide for the future? The figure is poised on the verge of movement, both hopeful and apprehensive, but stands tall in high heeled shoes with gold detail on their soles.

In highlighting this strategy for upward mobility that continues to motivate American citizens to leave familiar lands behind and migrate, sometimes to other countries and often during wartime, Charlton contrasts the promise of military experience with its reality of loss with a lush pop-up vision of her grandmother’s historic property in Tallahassee, Florida, an unusual economic achievement at the time and a unique opportunity afforded to her and her ten children.

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A Movement in Every Direction at the Baltimore Museum of Art

In many ways, Movement is a homecoming for the artists. As the audience, we experience this joyful return with them, steeped in family lore, each unique but also proverbial. There is a critical urgency to tell these stories now because so much of the history is being lost as the ‘greatest generation’ passes on, and with them, the paper trail of historic legal and economic records of Black people in the USA, which have often been intentionally left out of historic archives. Now is the time to unearth these stories before they are lost, and for artists to interpret them into new materials that can speak to a growing audience, creating new visual forms, but also sonic, immersive, and performative actions.

The Great Migration is a story of millions of individuals and families, Americans who made the difficult choice to leave their homes and families behind, who sacrificed their entire lives for economic security and physical safety, essentially to put food on the table in the future to ensure their family’s survival, and also those who stayed behind. Sharing and interpreting these personal yet collective stories about sacrifice and valor through contemporary art that is diverse in media but equal in ambition remains the high point of this exhibit, offering us a way forward at a time when migration, and immigration, has become politicized and abstracted, rather than a selfless, personal act that it is.

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Additional Information, dates and subsequent locations: This exhibition first opened at the MMA, on display from April 9 to September 11, 2022, before traveling to the BMA, where it is currently on view through January 29, 2023. It then embarks on a national tour to other regions of the U.S. that became destinations for the more than six million African Americans who left the South at the start of the 20th century and well into the 1970s. The subsequent venues and dates are the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York (March 3–June 25, 2023); California African American Museum in Los Angeles (August 5, 2023–March 3, 2024); and UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in California (Spring 2024). Additional venues to be announced.

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