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Transforming History into Contemporary Art: A Movement in Every Direction

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Perhaps you learned in history class about the Great Migration, where more than six million Black Americans left the South for cities across the United States between 1915 and 1970, but it’s highly unlikely that you understood this significant historical event from the perspectives of those who lived it.

The challenge for any artist is to transform one’s own experience into a compelling visual form, and the aim of the multifaceted group exhibit A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration is to “attend to and complicate historical traumas, racial violence, and socio-economic exigencies while at the same time examining the agency seized by both those who fled the South and those who remained behind,” according to a curatorial statement.

The exhibit features the work of twelve American artists—Akea Brionne, Mark Bradford, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates Jr., Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Carrie Mae Weems—who conducted research and created art about this momentous historic event. Instead of offering general commentary or quantitative data, the artists consider the impact of the Great Migration on their own families, uncovering compelling personal narratives and creating a familial legacy through newly commissioned works.

Co-curated by Jessica Bell Brown from the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) and Ryan Dennis of the Mississippi Museum of Art  (MMA) respectively, A Movement in Every Direction explores the question, “What would happen if today’s leading artists were given the space to think about the lasting impact of the Great Migration in a holistic, expansive, and dynamic way?” as stated in the exhibition’s Critical Reader catalog.

I first saw the exhibition where it debuted in Jackson, Mississippi this spring, after which I spoke to Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan Dennis for this interview. We talked about how the show came together, commissioning artwork, educational programming, but perhaps the most exciting aspect for me was seeing how much these two curators love and respect each other. Bell Brown and Dennis make this known throughout the interview—highlighting the importance of care and communication that was and is so necessary in telling this complex and integral American story.

The exhibit closes at the BMA on January 29, 2023 to head out on a national tour across the country, with its next iteration at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York (March 3–June 25, 2023).

 

Jessica Bell Brown and Ryan Dennis, image courtesy of the MMA and BMA
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.
Zöe Charlton’s "Permanent Change of Station" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
What would happen if today’s leading artists were given the space to think about the lasting impact of the Great Migration in a holistic, expansive, and dynamic way?
A Movement in Every Direction Critical Reader Catalog Text

A.F. Oehmke: What was the impetus for this exhibition?

Ryan Dennis: Our institutions, our directors, both Betsy Bradley and Chris Bedford at the Baltimore Museum of Art (who, as you know, has transitioned out of the BMA), had thought about a kind of relationship, a partnership for quite some time. At the Mississippi Museum of Art, Betsy was and has been really interested in making sure that Mississippi stories originate, in some way, in and with and through Mississippi.

Before Jessica and I were brought into our institutions, there was a kernel of an idea on the table around the Great Migration, thinking about Mississippi as this point of departure, if you will, for migrants. And then Baltimore being a city that was built up by migrants, and of course just thinking about the migratory rhythms across the country. There were talks and seeds of an idea to discuss what the impacts might be.

Jess was hired at the BMA in the fall of 2019, and I was hired at MMA in the spring of 2020. We both came together and were presented with an idea and kind of flipped it on its head. We wanted to think about the migration in more expansive and self-determined ways versus through a trauma lens, which I think was based on some original ideas—no fault to our directors, our institutions, it’s just a lens of seeing certain things. Jessica and I wanted to talk about multiple perspectives around this historical phenomenon that happened as we have come to understand it in and through narrative, but also have an opportunity to unpack that narrative a bit and move from that point. 

 

Theaster Gates Jr.’s The Double Wide at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Larry Cook’s “Let My Testimony Sit Next to Yours” series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
We wanted a list that was intergenerational, that showed different ways into making—artists who were really thinking about history and have an archival historical practice. Artists who were thinking conceptually about space, place, time, and family. Artists who we identified would use this opportunity in a way to dream big for themselves and expand.
Jessica Bell Brown, BMA

What was the process of putting the show together in terms of working with the artists? The art was commissioned and the artists received a lot of stewardship, a culmination of  research, mentorship, and a year-plus of making. How was that process different from the way that institutions typically work with artists?

Jessica Bell Brown: It is amazing to think about how much alignment there has been between [Ryan and me] from the very beginning, even when we were getting to know each other as colleagues. Our process was to think about a dream list of artists that we wanted to work with, whose practices could really illuminate these questions around ancestry, land, and self-determination in a myriad of ways, and be manifested in a myriad of ways. We wanted a list that was intergenerational, that showed different ways into making—artists who were really thinking about history and have an archival historical practice. Artists who were thinking conceptually about space, place, time, and family. Artists who we identified would use this opportunity in a way to dream big for themselves and expand.

When we put our list together, there was such overlap. We went through a process of speaking to folks either via phone or Zoom because we also set out to advance this project in the middle of a pandemic—actually, it was the earliest stages of the pandemic. I was hired [and] four months later there was a global shutdown. Six months later, Ryan came on to MMA and we had this ambitious goal and research plan for ourselves that we really quickly had to pivot from. So once we put our list together, we started contacting folks and asking for phone calls and virtual studio visits. We knew right away that we wanted folks to have the time and latitude to do their research and [for] that to be separate from their fabrication and production timelines or expenses.

Everyone got a research fellowship to use in whatever ways that they needed to start thinking about their work, to explore what avenues they could take. It was really beautiful because it allowed folks to work in a depressurized way. Almost a year in, we reached a point with the pandemic where we were comfortable traveling and our institutions were allowing travel again. Our first trip was for Ryan to come up to Baltimore. We visited with Zoë Charlton, and then we drove to DC to visit with Larry Cook, and then we took the train to New York.

 

Allison Janae Hamilton’s "A House Called Florida" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Akea Brionne’s "An Ode To (You)'all" series at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
The goal was to make things as robust and rigorous and celebratory as possible. It was quite a feat to accomplish all of this work for not only Jess and I, but also the artists and the writers who contributed to the catalog. We worked with our interpretation and education teams for a long time to think about visitor outcomes and the goals around those visitor outcomes, thinking about how people will reflect their own personal migration and immigration narratives.
Ryann Dennis, MMA

JBB: I remember working on the [catalogue] on the train and the cafe car, and making some decisions, then pivoting to being on the ground and spending time with Leslie Hewitt and Robert Pruitt in New York. It was a very fluid process between virtual and in-person meetings. We had several checkpoints with our teams along the way.

In many cases our registrars, our conservators, and our installation team were a part of the earliest conversations with the artists, and that was a really wonderful way to extend the support of the institution, not just at the execution phase, but from the ground up. Zoë has talked about how meaningful and transformative that process was at this particular moment in her practice because she was scaling up quite dramatically and in three dimensions with paper and was embarking on a completely new way of working and had a vision and a plan. And our teams really wrapped our arms around her and her work and were present along the way to problem-solve and engineer with her, which is incredible.

Ryan, anything to add?

RD: No, thank you. Alex, this happens.

I love it.

RD: I think [Jessica] captured that well. Our process has been really deeply collaborative. I think a part of your question, of how this is different from the way typical institutions work, is that Jess and I really opened up a space for our teams to get involved from the beginning. The can hadn’t gotten kicked too far down the road before we were like, here’s information about these artists and the works that they are thinking about—because of the nature of commission.

The commissioning process is already a challenging one, and then for it to happen in the middle of a pandemic, it just heightens everything to a thousand plus. Being able to work with our teams on the ground and build things up together and also have those teams sit in on conversations with their artists, I think, was really an important part of our process.

Thank you for that. I love the energy between you two and how collaborative it is. From my understanding, it’s the first project you all worked on together.

JBB: Oh, yeah. I feel like we’re in the same orbit of Black curators, artists, and thinkers, but had never formally met before. We share a number of great mutual friends. I feel like that deep respect and familiarity helped cultivate a really in-step curatorial process, but also deep, deep, deep, deep friendship that emerged from working together on this show.

 

Jamea Richmond-Edwards’s "This Water Runs Deep" 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.

The opening at MMA was filled with all kinds of programming: talks, panels, community events. And then when I went to go see the exhibition, there were a lot of didactics, and there was that beautiful lounge area in the entrance with books and such. There were also a lot of people from the education department who were in the space engaging with people, asking questions, talking about the work, answering questions. Can you talk about the educational and programmatic components of the exhibition?

RD: The goal was to make things as robust and rigorous and celebratory as possible. It was quite a feat to accomplish all of this work for not only Jess and I, but also the artists and the writers who contributed to the catalog. We worked with our interpretation and education teams for a long time to think about visitor outcomes and the goals around those visitor outcomes, thinking about how people will reflect their own personal migration and immigration narratives. [We were] thinking about deep storytelling, how visitors will connect the history to one another and also the artwork in framing a kind of storytelling for themselves and in their families.

The goals for the visitor outcomes were a five-point value system, if you will, that our teams and Jess and I worked through and on. At the MMA, it’s like a mandate, honestly, to have engagement spaces inside of the exhibition, and what form that the engagement space takes changes from exhibition to exhibition. But we really wanted to be intentional to have reflective spaces in areas where storytelling and connection could happen. 

Both of you mentioned the catalog, which is absolutely stunning—I spent a lot of time with it. Could you talk about that as an educational and programmatic element and how you considered it as something that goes with the exhibition? For me, it’s also this portable thing where I could just encounter it anywhere as this very beautiful, rich, robust object.

JBB: Thank you so much, Alex, for your observations. Hearing your question and the framing around it just takes me back to the very earliest conversations that we had about our ambition for the books. There are two of them, plus a free volume. There’s Volume 1 and Volume 2; you probably had the critical reader, which is Volume 1. [Editor’s note: Volume 2, an exhibition catalogue, was in production at the time of this interview.] Volume 3 is a free visitor’s guide which does a deeper dive into the artists’ practices.

One of the goals that we had in the very beginning was to think deeply about how history in the present moment can come together as we talk about the Great Migration. Because our show is all new work, we as curators wanted to have a deeper investigation of the histories that the artists are pulling from. We knew right off the bat that we wanted to do a critical reader to make publicly accessible decades worth of research on the Great Migration, because oftentimes when curating projects and making books, so much of that research stays within the curatorial team. Maybe it might make it into the object files of works acquired, but there’s a way in which that curatorial research can often be set apart from what the public sees as the finished product.

We didn’t want that to happen with our show because it was just such a rich topic that over the last half-century has started to be illuminated in more expansive ways. The critical reader was an offering of all of the inspiration that we found in the incredible work that scholars have been doing for so long on the Great Migration.

This book reflects our thinking process. It reflects the artists’ voices. There is an incredible roundtable in there that is a great timestamp for the earliest stages of the project when we were all cooped up at home but wanted to find a way to engage with each other as a cohort of thinkers and makers. There is also a section on Black foodways that incorporates the voices of contemporary chefs and food writers, and that was incredible also, to be able to bring something new to this compendium.

 

Robert Pruitt’s "A Song for Travelers" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Leslie Hewitt’s "Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible)" at the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
Carrie Mae Weems’s "Leave! Leave Now!" at the Mississippi Museum of Art, April 2022. Photo by Mitro Hood.
What do these strategies from the Great Migration—that were used for survival and for thriving and abundance, for new windows of opportunity—look like in 2022 for Black folks?
Jessica Bell Brown

RD: What’s so special to me about Volume One is that in addition to scholars’ essays on the Great Migration, it also frames what was happening in the country within the Great Migration time period. We took it back from 1870 to 1970, so a whole century [looking at] what was actually going on. It allows you to really understand sociopolitical streams of America. It allows you to see these formations of social networks, community, and Black leisure, but also Black political thought. I look at the book sometimes and have two reactions: like, either PTSD or just full joy. We’re just so proud of what we were able to accomplish during the pretty truncated time period for the breadth of the book. 

I took the critical reader, the little red one. I remember thinking it was such a lovely gesture to be giving out an educational publication for free. You both just brought up where we are in history. As we move further away from the time period of the Great Migration, and the people who made the era what it was, what does it mean to have an exhibition like this?

JBB: I’m very much reflecting on this because we’re so in it. But what I can say is that the Great Migration is arguably one of the most significant periods of American history that has profound and immediate resonance and impact and reverberations today. Although we are, what, 75-plus years out from the first wave, we still have not processed collectively, grappled with the motivations for that mass movement.

As Black folks, as Black people and Black families, it’s one of the most unifying collective phenomena that I think unite us in our experience. Although our experiences might be disparate, we all have family members who decided to leave or stay. How fundamentally our lives have been shaped by the Great Migration is something that we’re still unpacking. For this show to happen now is so significant because it reifies the necessity to continue to explore what motivated folks to make these kinds of decisions.

RD: I’m definitely still processing that question. In addition to processing, the show inspires how we can look at even our current living conditions socioeconomically, politically, and find ways to learn from the past to create new systems and structures that may be based off of land ownership and cooperative economics. What does it look like to build community in a new smaller rural place, like [what’s happening] in upstate New York? What do these strategies from the Great Migration—that were used for survival and for thriving and abundance, for new windows of opportunity—look like in 2022 for Black folks?

I think about it all the time, from towns like Blackham to Seneca Village in Central Park. These things were happening in Black Wall Street, all of these thriving moments for Black folks during a particular moment in time that were an attempt to be erased. But we have information, through shows like this, to expand and to think about agency and ancestry and land—and self-determination to create something new when the systems just are not working.

Place is really important to the Great Migration exhibit, and to each of the artists that you chose. What does it mean that the show opened in Mississippi? A lot of people migrated from Mississippi to other places. The show didn’t premiere in a place like Detroit or Flint, Michigan—places a lot of people migrated to. That’s where my family, which has roots in Mississippi, moved. 

RD: I think being from this place and recognizing the histories of this place, and the movement of why people left or why people decided to stay, or why people move from one county to another county, is so important for a kind of agency around this Mississippi story—this very Southern story that has reverberated throughout this country like no other.

To premiere it here, at the Mississippi Museum of Art, is significant because we are in Jackson, and Jackson is 85 percent Black. People leave Chicago or Michigan to come back to Mississippi for these family reunions. It happens every summer, there are these big gatherings across the city. So to be able to come to the Mississippi Museum of Art and see an exhibition like this reflect a story that might be so familiar in some ways, but also has an ability to open up some newness for somebody—it’s just important, in my mind. And I’m not saying that just cause I’m the co-curator of the show. I think it’s the foundation, it’s the place to start.

JBB: There’s also a way in which major exhibitions often have a prescribed circuit of travel across the United States, and the South is often not included in that circuit. So it’s very important that an exhibition of this caliber is supported and is seen in the region that is integral to the artworks themselves and the artists themselves. I’m very proud to have worked on this project with you, Ryan, and that its earliest germination started with you guys down at MMA.

RD: I mean, same, you know, the love overflow, it’s absurd. 

It’s beautiful.

RD: Thank you. Absurd in the best way. I’m not saying it negatively ‘cause I love Jessica Bell Brown. You can quote me all over the place.

 

Images courtesy of the BMA and MMA

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