For black artists, the Great Migration is an incomplete journey

Jackson, Ms. At midday, midweek, in the middle of 90 degrees in the middle of summer, the streets of the downtown historic district of this southern capital were almost empty. It’s like a movie set, perfect in period detail but outdated and abandoned.

A patch of sidewalk bearing the mosaic words “Bon-Ton Café” marks the setting of what was, a century ago, Jackson’s most tuned restaurant. In the nearby King Edward Hotel, it was built Like the Edwards Hotel In 1923 travel swelled, then a gathering place for blues musicians, then neglected until the last renovation, little foot traffic. On the other side of it, trains roll regularly to Union Station Georgian-style, but few passengers disembark or board.

Decades ago, the transcontinental trains and buses leaving the old Art Deco Greyhound warehouse several blocks away had buoyed business. Some of that business came from moving blacks from Jackson to the North, East, and West, from the oppressive and dangerous Jim Crow South Road, to what they hoped would be safer, more prosperous lives in cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Los Angeles. .

This targeted dispersal of some six million people, known as the Great Migration, is considered to have extended from the post-Reconstruction period in the late 1800s to after the Civil Rights Act of the 1970s. And its history gets an important update in a gallery rich in diversity called Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration At the Mississippi Museum of Art here.

A collaboration between the Mississippi Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, the show includes dozens of contemporary artists living across the United States. All work, titled Migration, is new, jointly commissioned by the museums in 2020 and completed during a pandemic that has largely ground most discretionary travel. Some artists have had access to a detailed family history of moving from or within the South. For others, tracing geo-tracks was less easy. For at least one participant, migration is personal and ongoing, from north to south and to Jackson itself.

Many artists take a documentary approach to their subject. 69-year-old Carrie Mae Wims, the main character here, is one. In the installation of a theater-like video titled “Leave! Leave Now!” She looks at the harrowing story of her grandfather, Frank Weams, an Arkansas tenant farmer who, in 1936, was ferociously assaulted by a white mob to organize unions, and only because he was left to die did he manage to survive. He made his way north on foot to Chicago and never came home. Wims’ spirited account of the family upheaval caused by his exile, and her call for retroactive justice in his case, make up the show’s most controversial moments.

Akiya Brioni, born in New Orleans in 1996 and the program’s youngest contributor, makes gentler use of archival material. Based in Detroit, she weaves photographs of her ancestors who never left the South—a great-grandmother and three aunts—into icon-like fabrics shimmering with sewn rhinestones. Leslie Hewitt, a New Yorker now living in Harlem, contributes three abstract plots, each of which suggests a foundation for the house and frames delicate pieces of glassware inherited from her grandmother who spent her life in Macon, Ga.

The idea of ​​embodying the vast history of material culture – in specific and transferable objects – is the core of Theaster Gates Jr.’s installation. called “The Double Wide”. The multi-part piece commemorates childhood summer travels from his home in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi, where his uncle ran a candy store out of a double-width trailer, which became a jock joint at night. Gates turned his version of the trailer—a pair of box structures made of salvaged barn wood—into a personal shrine on wheels to the south, stocked with canned and pickled goods, religious photos and compelling videos of gospel singing by blacks. The Monks, a band he founded.

Conceptual designer Larry W. Cook in Washington, D.C. examines his roots in Georgia and South Carolina by photographing the rural landscapes there and presenting them with old photographs of male ancestors going back several generations. The history he reviews results in a theme: an absentee parenting style, chosen or coercive, and a style he hopes to unlearn in his own child-rearing practice.

Some artists extended the territorial scope of the Great Migration beyond customary boundaries. Such is the case with Zoe Charlton, who descends from a military dynasty. (She was born in Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.) In a panoramic sculpture composed of flat, cut, and drawn shapes, she sets her grandmother’s azure Florida bungalow into a landscape and melds native palm trees with bush vegetation in Vietnam, where many black soldiers have seen combat.

Los Angeles-based Mark Bradford completely skips over the biographical reference in a piece of text that fills the wall. His great research on immigration brought him to the 1913 ad in “the crisis,” The magazine produced by the NAACP had the text of the advertisement: “500 families of Negroes (farmers preferred) are required to settle on free government lands in Chaves, New Mexico,” as participants in a colony called Blackdom. Bradford’s mural, made up of 60 copies of the advertisement drawn on paper, repeats its perfect call like hymns, but also makes it dark: much of the paper appears to be burning, as if by fire.

Where Bradford grounded his view of the Great Migration in a tangible source, other artists addressed it, with less success, indirectly. Fantasy is the mode in 3-channel video by Allison Janney Hamilton Which has the souls of black Florida residents from the homes they once called home. Video by Stephanie Jameson Alabama-based artist Lakia Black presents the digital world as a liberating destination. Abstract sculpture of glass and steel Dyson turquoise It avoids narration altogether. Its four hollow, trapezoidal components resemble a giant set of tweeters, but the piece is silent.

By contrast, two of the strongest entries convincingly argue the continuing dynamic of the Great Migration as a southward-oriented phenomenon. Huge coloring page, “Song for Travelers” by Robert Pruittis inspired by this artist’s move from Houston to New York but pays homage to the city of Texas he’s leaving, a vital destination for longtime black immigrants.

And in a brilliant collage titled “This Water Runs in the Deep” by the artist Gamma Richmond Edwards She envisions herself surrounded by family—mother, sister, husband, children—sailing together in a gilded boat. There is a back story here. Decades ago, after Mississippi was hit by a series of devastating floods, the Richmond-Edwards family had to leave the lands they owned there and head to Detroit, where Jamie was born. They never got their land back, but the artist recently bought a property near Jackson and plans to move here permanently.

She would surely be a welcome presence in a city for anyone with an interest in the history of this country and a stake in black culture, a bountiful resource. Tell the truth Civil Rights Museum It opened here five years ago. The Mississippi Museum of Art has compelling holdings of South Made work, some of which are on display in the galleries adjacent to the Great Immigration Gallery, organized by Ryan N. Dennis, Senior Curator and Artistic Director of the Museum’s Art and Public Center. Exchange, and Jessica Biel Brown, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Baltimore Museum. The work of local Jackson artists enlivens the public walls. The Mississippi Freedom Trail, marked by signs memorializing the events and characters that shape the era, runs through downtown.

In fact, all the people I saw on the street in the scorching middle of the summer were tourists looking for exactly such signs, the ones at the site of the 1963 Jackson Woolworth sit-in, which mark the old Greyhound warehouse from which countless great immigrants departed and left and arrived He has others. “Movement in every direction” captures the pulse of that go and go, and it never stops. The beating and the feet continue.


Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration

Until September 11, Mississippi Museum of Art, 380 South Lamar Street, Jackson, Miss. , (601) 960-1515; msmuseumart.org. Travels to the Baltimore Museum of Art, October 30-January. 29.

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