“A sense of radical possibility”: re-examining the great migration through art | Art

Jhe way we talk about the great migration is often oversimplified, limiting it to the movement of black Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the early and mid-twentieth century. But there are many more stories of the great migration than this. The new joint exhibition between the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, A Movement in Every Direction seeks to complicate this ordered narrative through freshly commissioned works of art that add new stories to the great migration and explore how it continues to this day.

Ryan Dennis, the exhibition’s co-curator and chief curator at the Mississippi Museum of Art, told me that “our vision for the exhibition was to think more broadly about the great migration and its deep connection to the south.” . Revising the predominant narratives of this mass exodus, Dennis felt that “it was really important to move away from the deep trauma of the great migration and think more about how self-determination and possibility were part of the story”.

To that end, A Movement in Every Direction shows new works in various media by 12 famous artists, including Carrie Mae Weems, Mark Bradford and Theaster Gates Jr. The show opened at the Mississippi Museum of Art in April, and at the fall he will go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, which will open there on October 30, 2022.

Mark Bradford-500, 2022. Photography: BMA Photography/Mitro Hood Photography. Courtesy of Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art

Bradford’s eye-catching 500 piece consists of 60 individually painted and oxidized paper-on-wood panels. From a distance, 500 looks like an abstract mass of blacks and ochres, but closer examination reveals that each of its 60 panels is actually a reproduction of a 1913 advertisement reading “WANTED” at the top, recruiting settlers for agriculture established by the blacks. town of Blackdom, New Mexico. Incorporated in 1903 by 13 African Americans, the city briefly prospered in the 1910s, before declining and emptying amid the Great Depression.

Bradford’s 500 has a rustic, time-ravaged feel, with the oxidation process rendering each individual panel only partially legible. It arouses the curiosity of people who may have seen this ad, the mix of emotions they felt as they considered transforming their lives entirely through the hard work of traveling out west and building a new colony. . A sense of time and history is also superimposed on this work, the panels evoking the century-long chasm that separates us from these migrants, even as it raises contemporary questions about who are the descendants of these individuals and where they live their life. , probably under radically different circumstances than their ancestors.

Contrasting with the deeply rooted historicism of 500 is artist Leslie Hewitt’s triptych of low-rise abstract sculptures, Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible), placed throughout the exhibition. The title of these pieces evokes the very long and very slow rhythms associated with long-term migrations, particularly in the era before modern means of transport. Their strangeness may evoke displacement among museum visitors, but they also offer viewers a moment of familiarity – as co-curator and curator of the exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Jessica Bell Brown, has said, “Leslie uses materials that connect her to her family’s ancestral origin in Macon, Georgia, so the materials create this kind of abstraction for visitors, but when you look at the work, it immediately reminds you of that domestic space, a deep sense of connection to space.

Foreground: Leslie Hewitt, Untitled (Imperceptible, Slow Drag, Barely Moving), 2022. Background: Robert Pruitt, A Song for Travelers, 2022
Foreground: Leslie Hewitt, Untitled (Imperceptible, Slow Drag, Barely Moving), 2022. Background: Robert Pruitt, A Song for Travellers, 2022. Photography: BMA Photography/Mitro Hood Photography. Courtesy of Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art

Brown saw Hewitt’s sculptures as related to Zoë Charlton’s large-scale pop-up collage, Permanently Changing Stations, which features an enormous wall drawing of a lush landscape behind several pop-up book-like plants glued together at the first. plan. Although the work relies heavily on the natural splendor that is so central to defining the location, its title is a reminder of the influence of the military in his family’s life, which caused Charlton’s family to migrate across the world. Brown told me that “in this piece, Zoë thinks about her family’s origins in Florida begging, as well as the so-called foreign landscapes where her family spent so much time in military service. Looking at Zoë’s incredible installation, it’s phenomenal to me that artists like her and Leslie speak to each other through their family stories.

With the breadth of work offered in A Movement in Every Direction, it is clear that Dennis and Brown are trying to position the great migration in a very broad sense, as a complicated phenomenon that can have multiple meanings at once. This show is significant in that it aspires to put the agency back in the story of the great migration, as well as engaging with the larger story of how black people found their homes in the United States. United. Dennis sees migration as “a movement and a possibility, something that has a very profound impact on black people, both in this country and around the world. It examines how people should move to protect themselves and enable a deeper rootedness in the world, and to consider how they should move for their families. Brown added that “when I think of all the artists in the show, I think of migration as a sense of radical possibility.”

Zoë Charlton, Permanent change of station, 2022
Zoë Charlton, Permanent change of station, 2022. Photography: BMA Photography/Mitro Hood Photography. Courtesy of Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art

Organizing A Movement in Every Direction was also a very rewarding experience for Dennis and Brown. Dennis shared that by collaborating on the show, they “created a friendship that will last a lifetime.” Additionally, as black women with their own connections to the black community, they found that working on the show gave them space to open up questions about their own personal and family histories. Dennis told me that being the show’s curator “allowed me to ask more questions of my family and understand their origin story and movement in a way that I never had. just not before. It is inspiring to share this exhibit with my nieces and nephews, who have been encouraged to speak to their great-aunts about their lives. Adding to that, Brown said, “there is a deep relevance to this exhibit in that it opens up the possibility for so many people to open up their family heritage and open up the way they tell stories.”

Indeed, so far, A Movement in Every Direction has done just that. According to Dennis, in the two years she has worked with the Mississippi Museum of Art, she has never seen so many people of color come to see an exhibit. This is all the more important since Jackson, where the museum is located, is 85% black. For Dennis, seeing the audience reaction to the show has “been really phenomenal. The people of Jackson can see themselves reflected in the show’s work and narrative, and so they really showed up.

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