A Show About the Great Migration Strikes a Timely Chord


JACKSON, Miss. It’s not until about a week after attending the opening ceremonies for the exhibition A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration that I begin to realize just how apt the title is, and how judicious and fitting its co-production arrangement. The exhibition is produced by a partnership between the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA), which hosts its first iteration, and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), to which it is slated to travel in October of this year.

The title refers to the historical development between 1910 and 1970 in which approximately six million Black Americans moved from the American South to other parts of the country, most famously to urban centers such as Detroit, Baltimore, and New York City. As the show’s two curators — Ryan Dennis, the Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) chief curator and artistic director, and Jessica Bell Brown, an associate curator of contemporary art at the BMA — point out in their introduction to the Great Migration Critical Reader (which they compiled to accompany the exhibition), this means that in 1915, about 90% of Black Americans lived in the South while by the 1970s only 50% did. This is a momentous shift, but these numbers indicate a counter-narrative as well: Many Black people stayed. The movement really was in all directions, including down, deeper into the land and soil that some Black folks knew intimately and, in some ways, still trusted. There was also movement within the South. Allison Janae Hamilton points this out in a roundtable conversation, partially reproduced in the reader, among the exhibition’s artists, the curators, and four writers and researchers who also have connections to the South. Here, Hamilton talks about micro-migrations that occur because of forcible displacement, racial terror, and environmental climate concerns.

Allison Janae Hamilton, “A House Called Florida” (2022), three-channel film installation (color, sound), 34:46 min. (courtesy the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York and Aspen)

In both its construction and subject matter this show is profoundly timely. At a moment when the future of this nation seems precarious and uncertain, A Movement in Every Direction demonstrates that Black Americans have been among this nation’s most stalwart heroes, despite being perceived through the lens of white supremacy as existing outside of its imagined borders. As Dennis and Brown write in their introduction to the accompanying reader: “Wherever Black Americans went or wherever they chose to stay behind where there are heart breaking and seemingly relentless instances of hardship, racial terror, lynching, and Jim Crow apartheid, there are also stories of abundance, land ownership, self-possession, and deep ancestral knowing.” 

Yes. Someone needed to say this out loud and without qualification. The stories of Black folks have always been the stories of the United States of America, and they are among the most imaginative and irresistible narratives because they embrace the whole spectrum of human ambition, suffering, degradation, achievement, and invention. 

In their joint foreword to the reader, MMA Director Betsy Bradley and then BMA Director Chris Bedford write: “The creation of new genres of music, literature, and visual art can be tied directly to legacies of migration. What is less understood, however, is the link between contemporary Black visual artists and their family migration stories.” Many of these personal stories are aired in the Great Migration Critical Reader roundtable dialogue. Here, you can hear how the artists conceive of the Great Migration and their place in it, how all its social, economic, political, legal, personal, aesthetic, and metaphorical valences work through them and their families. This seems to be the essential aim of the exhibition, and one I can generally follow through much of the work, although sometimes the plot escapes me. 

Akea Brionne, An Ode To (You)’all (2022), series of six jacquard tapestries with poly-fil, rhinestones, dimensions variable (courtesy the artist)

There are many ways into this exhibition. I find Akea Brionne’s hand-sewn jacquard tapestries, which feature images of her family members, to be very grounding. The pieces, all from a series titled An Ode to (You)’all, show Black people in various states of repose, such as the two figures in “Porch Sittin’” (all works 2022). In each work Brionne translates a seemingly antiquated, black and white photograph into a textile image, while colorfully embellishing parts of the image; for instance, in “Love’s Trio” the men’s ties and belts are bits of appliqué attached to the textile, and the woman’s hat is studded with rhinestones and a peach-flavored artificial flower. Each of these tapestries conveys the artist’s feelings of deep gratitude and care for her familial inheritance: the photographs, the memories, and the actual people. Brionne’s ode to her relatives is a metaphor for the Great Migration itself. It illustrates a kind of departure from the ancestral home, that is, a sewing tradition first learned from her grandmother, and her travel to other locales where she acquired formal training (studying fashion), allowing her to return to and elaborate on that tradition, which constitutes the basis of her practice. 

Similarly, works by Robert Pruitt, Zoë Charlton, and Jamea Richmond-Edwards use the drawn and painted figure to refer to specific family members and the lore that accompanies them, pulling me into their narrative and speculative streams. In Pruitt’s “A Song for Travelers” (2022) the images of his kindred are coded in his family’s particular dialect and his own idiolect. One of his uncles has a catfish slung around his neck, a person’s clothing is covered with paper currency, and another figure, who wears compression shorts, is bedecked in a bevy of what look like varsity jackets. I think of the ways in which familial stories might begin with humorous individual quirks that take on the weight of legend over time.

Zoë Charlton, “Permanent Change of Station” (2022), collage on wood panel, 72 1/8 x 214 x 120 inches; graphite, gouache, paper collage, 81 x 214 inches (courtesy the artist)

For Jamea Richmond-Edwards, her family’s journey from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia to the Midwest is made legendary. She illustrates it through the depiction of a mystical dragon-like creature that surrounds her and key relatives as they make their way through roiling waters in a boat flecked with goldleaf. “This Water Runs Deep” (2022) combines fabrics, paper, pastels, glitter, and paint to create a visual allegory for a long, arduous, and treacherous odyssey. Though it acknowledges the dangers that surround the family, the riotously colorful piece is ultimately powerfully celebratory. Each figure, cloaked in extravagant finery, gazes back at the viewer with a look of complete self-possession.  

Zoë Charlton’s “Permanent Change of Station” (2022) is hopeful in a different way: It imagines what lies ahead, as if the journey is not done. The piece consists of a large drawing containing a female figure, possibly in a military uniform, facing away from the viewer, her gaze toward a valley rendered in grayscale, with a wash of light green, and dotted with domestic settlements here and there. The protagonist holds a toy-sized fighter jet in her hand. In front of this drawing is a large installation consisting of a low, white-painted stage, on which rests a bountiful collage of trees and bushes, some bearing fruit or flowers. Charlton has identified herself as a military dependent, which I imagine makes her very conversant with moving frequently and quickly adjusting to new environments. Though the lush garden of delights lies behind the protagonist, small seedlings sprout all along the tiered plateaus that flank the valley. They have yet to grow and achieve full color, but with the reduction of the military’s role in the protagonist’s life (symbolized by the shrunken war aircraft), the prospect of a life of thriving rather than constant struggle seems within reach. Both Charlton’s and Richmond-Edwards’s works are the most lovely of the exhibition.

It is with the video and film works that I have difficulty keeping faith in the show’s conceit, particularly Steffani Jemison’s “A*ray” (2022), which tags along with the actress Lakia Black as she prepares for and acts out various monologues for TikTok and YouTube videos. The work comes across as important to Black identity, but I can’t muster any interest in it. The scenes in which she practices lines and dons different outfits read as particularly self-indulgent to me. While Allison Janae Hamilton’s “A House Called Florida” (2022) is almost as opaque in terms of identifiable referents (especially for someone who has only been to Florida three times, and one of those trips  was to Disney World), it has some gorgeous cinematography. The characters enact obscure rituals and traditions unknown to me, but they are visually compelling. 

Carrie Mae Weems, “Leave! Leave Now!” (2022), single-channel digital video (color, sound) installation with mixed media, 25 min., dimensions variable (courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York)

Carrie Mae Weems’s video “Leave, Leave Now!” (2022) doesn’t quite have the urgency of the title. Archival images of people and situations that are meaningful to Weems float through the video, but it seemed dominated by a feeling of languor and only held my interest for a short time. I was much more riveted by her revelation, on stage at the opening events, that she learned while researching for the piece that she could sue the state of Arkansas for crimes against humanity on behalf of her grandfather, Frank Weems. As a 2014 symposium at the Guggenheim Museum indicated, Weems has become increasingly oriented toward the riches available in historical archives, a point she reinforced in a discussion with Saidiya Hartman, Akea Brionne, and Savannah Wood. This is likely a fruitful direction, but I don’t think she’s yet found a way to make her work with archives as directly enthralling as her earlier work.

Where the show ventures into more abstract terrain, it stumbles. Torkwase Dyson continues to create rhetorically opulent frameworks for her pieces, which visually and experientially rarely live up to the hype. In a chapbook, she claims of her piece “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches)” (2022): “The four interconnected modular sculptures and archives that resulted from these collaborations offer a meditation, one that uncovers and contains strategies of spatial liberation.” But look at it — it’s a sculpture made of steel and glass and aluminum, like an intersection of four portals that don’t quite connect. The piece is cold, dark, and uninterested in anything like human relations. The issue is not that it’s theoretical or speculative, but that it actually does nothing like what it purports to do. Instead, it’s a chilly version of post-minimalist sculpture that would be right at home in DIA: Beacon with the other formalist experiments. 

Torkwase Dyson, “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches)” (2022), painted steel, glass, painted aluminum, dry-erase marker, two connectors each 203 x 33 x 93 inches; four trapezoids each 83 x 40 x 78 inches; two units each comprised of one connector and two trapezoids 70 x 364 x 93 inches; overall circumference of each unit 364 inches (courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery)

Theaster Gates Jr. also disappoints in the display of pickled goods and reliquaries in his installation “The Double Wide” (2022). For several years now, I have wondered what Gates seeks to accomplish by placing utilitarian and decorative objects designed for home or commercial use in museum and gallery spaces. It feels like he is making a case for transforming that dreaded white cube into a “Black” space. Several other artists have done similar things: Carrie Mae Weems and Mickalene Thomas come to mind. The idea has merit, but I wonder whether the work becomes less ambitious and provocative by aiming for this goal. That Gates uses the installation as a backdrop for performances by his music ensemble, the Black Monks, doesn’t help the impact of the visual work. In this show, the artwork feels like it’s just a placeholder for Gates to perform a kind of art-scene rockstar persona. And in fact, during the Black Monks’ performance at the show’s opening, Gates was moved to take one of the posters from his own installation off the wall, place it on the ground, and lie on it as he gazed back at his partner vocalist. 

Foreground: Theaster Gates Jr., “The Double Wide” (2022), spruce framing, armory flooring, metal roofing exterior, Mississippi reliquary, tar, pickled goods, bronze sculpture, two-channel video (color, sound), 1:03 min. (channel one) and 6:30 min. (channel two), dimensions variable (courtesy the artist). Background: Mark Bradford, “500,” detail (2022), mixed media on panel, 60 panels, each 22 x 28 inches (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth)

The artist who uses abstraction and sculpture to much better effect is Leslie Hewitt. She has lain down three separate installations that combine what look like heirloom glass and polished red oak wood pieces, with a perimeter set by hot rolled steel that has been formed into girders. Although “Untitled (Imperceptible, Slow Drag, Barely Moving),” for example, isn’t particularly legible to me, each installation defines a kind of hallowed ground. The inherited glass pieces are in some ways precious; placed on the floor they ask visitors to step carefully and with intention, while the wood suggests what that careful and intentional action can do: transform what is found in nature into what is useful to us. The steel achieves something similar while also defining a boundary between Hewitt’s pieces and everything else in the gallery.

For all of its brilliance and frustrations, I’ve never seen a show so thoroughly transform the galleries at the MMA. I’ve been here several times since discovering its CAPE initiative, which is working to remold the museum into an organization uniquely and purposefully committed to addressing issues of social justice and representation through contemporary visual art. Particularly in telling the story of a movement that did indeed present Black people in every direction aesthetically, having this mix of representational, personal, affective, abstract, and conceptual work is an astute curatorial approach. This show means to feed all the folks who left Mississippi, those who stayed, and all their descendants who have taught themselves how to survive the nation’s post-Reconstruction turn back toward systemic socioeconomic and political apartheid. What comes through in this exhibition is that these survival tactics — storytelling, coded communication, the preservation of traditional crafts, participation in rituals of consecration — are also used by contemporary artists to thrive. 

A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration continues at the Mississippi Museum of Art (380 South Lamar Street, Jackson, Mississippi) through September 11. The exhibition was curated by Ryan Dennis, the Center for Art and Public Exchange (CAPE) chief curator and artistic director, and Jessica Bell Brown, Baltimore Museum of Art associate curator of contemporary art.


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