"A Movement in Every Direction" Captures Enduring Significance of the Great Migration through Commissioned Works by 12 Acclaimed Artists

  • JACKSON, Mississippi
  • /
  • December 08, 2021

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On April 9, the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) will open A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, which explores the profound impact of the Great Migration on the social and cultural life of the United States from historical and personal perspectives. Co-organized with the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), the exhibition features newly commissioned works across media by 12 acclaimed Black artists, including Mark Bradford, Akea Brionne, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates, Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Carrie Mae Weems. Through the artists’ distinct and dynamic installations, A Movement in Every Direction reveals anew the spectrum of contexts that shaped the Great Migration and explores the ways in which it continues to reverberate today in both intimate and communal experiences. The exhibition will be open at the MMA through September 11, 2022, and will then travel to the BMA, where it will be on view from October 30, 2022, through January 29, 2023. A Movement in Every Direction will be accompanied by a two-volume publication that includes commissioned essays by Kiese Laymon, Jessica Lynne, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Dr. Willie J. Wright.

The Great Migration saw more than six million African Americans leave the South for destinations across the United States at the start of the 20th century and well into the 1970s. This incredible movement of people transformed nearly every aspect of Black life, in both rural towns and urban metropolises, and spurred an already flourishing Black culture. A Movement in Every Direction provides a platform for the featured artists to explore, reflect on, and capture their own relationships to this singular historic happening, both personally and artistically. Brought together by co-curators Ryan N. Dennis (she/her), MMA Chief Curator and Artistic Director of the Museum’s Center for Art and Public Exchange, and Jessica Bell Brown (she/her), BMA Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, the works offer an insightful rumination on the complexity of the Great Migration as a narrative that is still unfolding. The exhibition showcases an incredible richness of artistic vision and endeavor, with installations ranging widely in conceptual and technical approach and embracing painting, sculpture, drawing, video, sound, and immersive installation. MMA and BMA are also creating digital assets tied to the exhibition for their websites for virtual engagements.

“We asked this group of talented artists to join us on this journey over a year ago, during a pandemic, to investigate their connections to the South. The process has been illuminating, and we are so thankful for their excitement and commitment to this project during such a trying time. As each project has developed over the last year, informed by research, explorations, and dialogue, it has become clear that our show will primarily underscore reflections on family. It will posit migration as both a historical and political consequence, but also as a choice for reclaiming one’s agency. The works examine individual and familial stories of perseverance, self-determination, and self-reliance through a variety of expressions,” said Dennis and Brown.

Many of the works in the exhibition engage with new and ongoing research by the artists, examining this history through the lens of contemporary life and establishing incisive parallels across time. Torkwase Dyson’s Way Over There Inside Me (2022), which includes an installation of modular sculptures as well as an online archive, examines the relationships between plantation economies, Black spatial histories, and our deepening environmental crisis. The connections between migration, economies, and landscape are also explored in Allison Janae Hamilton’s three-channel film installation, A House Called Florida (2022). It offers a haunting, mythic exploration of the longstanding, symbiotic connections between Black life and the southern environment, and a speculation on the intertwined fates of life and land in the aftermath of climate degradation. The same themes occur in Jamea Richmond-Edwards’ multimedia installation, reflecting on the how natural disasters have catalyzed Black migration. In other instances, the artists’ research emphasizes the making of culture, such as Steffani Jemison’s video work, which features Alabama-based actress Lakia Black and others expressing a range of real and imagined identities through spoken word and music.

The development, strength, and resilience of community also emerged in the research and creation of individual works, and as an important thread within the exhibition. Mark Bradford’s Blackdom (2022), an installation of 60 individually painted and oxidized panels, is inspired by and takes its name from a Black settlement in New Mexico that the artist discovered during research for the exhibition, and which was billed as a safe and self-reliant community for Black people. In A Song for Travelers (2022), Robert Pruitt examines his hometown of Houston, particularly the Third and Fourth Wards, which served as a locus for protection and resources for new migrants through a large-scale drawing that reflects archival and contemporary representations of the evolution of his community. Zoë Charlton’s large-scale installation, Permanent Change of Station (2022), features a monumental wall drawing and life-size pop-up sculpture that blur boundaries between real and imagined and between the domestic and foreign. Charlton explores how, for some families like hers, military service became pivotal for Black social advancement and at the same time, fueled global imperialist interventions in Vietnam and the Philippines.

Personal and familial experiences are central to the entire exhibition, and for several artists this engagement led to the creation of particularly intimate works. In her immersive video installation, titled LEAVE! LEAVE NOW!! (2022), Carrie Mae Weems explores the journey of her grandfather Frank Weems, a prominent tenant farmer and union activist who was presumed dead after being attacked by a white mob in 1936, but who survived and made his way to Chicago. A series of digital prints reflecting on Frank Weems’ northward journey entitled The North Star (2022) will accompany the installation. Akea Brionne’s The Path Laid by the Phelps Sisters (2022) explores ancestral resilience and strength within Black maternal family structures. The installation focuses on the lives of the artist’s great-grandmother and four great-aunts through portraits and materials that contain familial significance and captures the significance of the work of prior generations to improving the lives and opportunities of their descendants. In a series of large-scale photographs and archival family photographs, Larry W. Cook explores intergenerational narratives about fatherhood and forgiveness as he traces his paternal lineage across Georgia, South Carolina, and Washington, DC.

The interplay between the personal and communal continues with The Double Wide (2022) by Theaster Gates, a large-scale sculptural installation that resembles a double-wide trailer owned by his uncle that had functioned as a candy store by day and a juke joint by night. The installation features a soundtrack as well as material culture that speaks to Gates’ childhood, family, and friends. Leslie Hewitt’s Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible) (2022) positions a group of abstract sculptures informed by her grandmother’s family home in Macon, Georgia. The works reference the once-thriving businesses that her family was forced to close by eminent domain, while also grappling with broader notions of destabilization and migration in relation to time and space.

“Through this incredible spectrum of works, we hope viewers will experience A Movement in Every Direction as a meditation on ancestry, place, and possibility,” added Dennis and Brown.

Publications

The exhibition will be accompanied by a two-volume publication. The first volume will encompass a critical reader highlighting pivotal scholarly work around aspects of the Great Migration, from the shaping of American cities to its impact on Black spirituality, music, art, food, and culture. The second volume will offer a capsule presentation of exhibition content, including curatorial essays, artist entries, and newly commissioned essays by leading scholars Kiese Laymon, Jessica Lynne, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Dr. Willie J. Wright.

For more information, visit artbma.org and  msmuseumart.org.

Image Captions

Top row, left to right:

Zoë Charlton, Photo:  E. Brady Robinson Photography

Allison Janea Hamilton, Photo:  Frankie Alduino

Leslie Hewitt, Photo:  Richard Renaldi

Torkwase Dyson, Photo:  Gabe Souza

Akea Brionne, Photo:  Akea Brionne

Mark Bradford, Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke, © Mark Bradford, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Bottom row, left to right:

Steffani Jemison, Photo:  Nottingham Contemporary 2017

Larry W. Cook, Photo:  Nakeya Brown

Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Photo:  Jamea Richmond-Edwards

Carrie Mae Weems, Photo:  Audoin Desforges, 2020

Theaster Gates, Photo:  Sara Pooley

Robert Pruitt, Photo:  Autumn Knight, 2020


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