JACKSON, Miss. — At noon, midweek, in mid-90-degree summer, the streets of a historic downtown district of this southern capital are nearly empty. They are like a movie set, perfect in period detail but used in the past and discarded.
A patch of sidewalk encrusted with the mosaic words “Bon-Ton Café” marks the location of what was, a century ago, Jackson’s fanciest restaurant. At the nearby King Edward Hotel, built in 1923 as the Edwards Hotel for travelers, later a gathering place for blues musicians, then abandoned until recent renovations, foot traffic is scarce. Opposite, trains rumble steadily through a neo-Georgian Union Station, but few passengers disembark or board.
Decades ago, transcontinental trains and buses leaving the former Art Deco Greyhound depot just a few blocks away were doing great business. And part of that business came from transporting Black Jacksonians north, east and west, from a repressive and dangerous Jim Crow South, to what they hoped would be a safer and more prosperous life in cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles. .
This directed dispersal of some six million people, known as the Great Migration, is generally considered to have stretched from the late 19th century after Reconstruction to the 1970s after the Civil Rights Act. And her story is getting a major update in a richly varied exhibit called “Movement in All Directions: 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 exhibition includes a dozen contemporary artists living across the United States. All of the migration-themed work is new, co-commissioned in 2020 by the museums and completed during a pandemic that has brought most discretionary travel to a virtual standstill. Some of the artists had access to detailed family histories of moving from or within the South. For others, geographic paths were less easily traceable. For at least one participant, the migration is personal and ongoing, from north to south and to Jackson itself.
Many artists take a documentary approach to their subject. Carrie Mae Weems, at 69, the main figure here, is one. In a scenic video installation titled “Go! Leave now!” she recalls the dark story of her grandfather, Frank Weems, an Arkansas farmer who, in 1936, was violently attacked by a white mob for organizing the union and, only because he was left for dead, managed to survive. He made his way north on foot to Chicago and never returned home. Weems’ impassioned account of the family turmoil caused by his exile and his plea for retroactive justice in his case constitute the most openly polemical moment of the exhibition.
Akea Brionne, born in New Orleans in 1996 and the show’s youngest contributor, makes gentler use of archival material. Based in Detroit, she weaves photographic images of ancestors who never left the South – a great-grandmother and three great-aunts – into iconic tapestries shimmering with sewn rhinestones. And Leslie Hewitt, a native New Yorker now living in Harlem, brings three abstract pieces to the floor, each suggesting a house foundation and framing delicate pieces of glassware inherited from her grandmother who spent her life in Macon, in Georgia.
The idea that vast histories are embodied in material culture – in specific, transportable things – is the essence of Theaster Gates Jr.’s installation titled “The Double Wide”. The multi-part coin commemorates his childhood summer trips from his home in Chicago to visit family in Mississippi, where an uncle operated a candy store from a double-width trailer, which became a juke joins at night. Gates transformed his version of the trailer – a pair of square structures made from reclaimed barn wood, into a custom shrine on wheels heading south, filled with canned and pickled goods, religious imagery and jazzy videos of gospel singing by the Black Monks, a music group he founded.
Washington, DC conceptualist Larry W. Cook examines his roots in Georgia and South Carolina by photographing rural landscapes there and displaying them with vintage portraits of male ancestors dating back generations. The story he travels delivers a theme: a pattern of absent fatherhood, chosen or forced, and with which he hopes to break in his own parental practice.
Some artists extend the territorial scope of the Great Migration beyond customary boundaries. This is the case of Zoë Charlton, from a military line. (She was born at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.) In a panoramic sculpture composed of flat, cut-out and painted shapes, she situates her grandmother’s sky-blue Florida bungalow in a landscape and mixes local palm trees with the jungle vegetation of Vietnam, where many black soldiers saw combat.
Los Angeles-based Mark Bradford completely ignores the biographical reference in text that fills the walls. His research on the Great Migration led him to a 1913 advertisement in “The Crisis”, the magazine produced by the NAACP. in a settlement called Blackdom. Bradford’s mural, made up of 60 versions of the announcement painted on paper, repeats its utopian invitation like a chant, but also darkens it: much of the paper looks burnt, as if by fire.
Where Bradford bases his view of the Great Migration on a concrete source, other artists approach it, less successfully, obliquely. Fantasy is the mode in a three-channel wraparound video from Allison Janae Hamilton that has the spirits of Black Floridians in the haunted houses of the past they once called home. A video by Steffani Jemison, featuring Alabama-based performer Lakia Black, offers the digital realm as a liberating destination. And an abstract glass and steel sculpture by Torkwase Dyson eschews storytelling altogether. Its four hollow trapezoidal components look like a giant array of audio amplifiers, but the room is mute.
By contrast, two of the strongest entries make a compelling case for the continued dynamism of the Great Migration as a Southward-directed phenomenon. A monumental pencil drawing, ‘A Song for Travelers,’ by Robert Pruitt, is inspired by the artist’s move from Houston to New York but pays homage to the Texas town he left, long a vital destination for black migrants .
And in a shimmering collage-paint titled “This Water Runs Deep,” artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards depicts herself surrounded by her family — mother, sister, husband, children — all sailing together in a golden boat. There is a story here. Decades ago, after Mississippi was hit by a series of devastating floods, the Richmond-Edwards family had to leave the land they owned there and head to Detroit, where Jamea was born. They never got their land back, but the artist recently bought a property near Jackson and plans to settle there permanently.
She is sure to be a welcome presence in a city that is an abundant resource for anyone interested in this country’s history and black culture. A truth-telling civil rights museum opened here five years ago. The Mississippi Museum of Art has fascinating collections of Southern works, some of which are on display in adjoining galleries in the Great Migration exhibit, curated by Ryan N. Dennis, chief curator and artistic director of the Center for Art and Public at the museum. Exchange, and Jessica Bell Brown, chief curator for contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum. Works by local Jackson artists enliven the public walls. And the Mississippi Freedom Trail, marked with signs commemorating historic events and personalities, runs through downtown.
Indeed, nearly everyone I saw on the street in the blazing summer was tourists looking for exactly such signs, the one at the site of the Jackson Woolworth sit-in in 1963, and the one identifying the old depot of Greyhound from where countless Great Migrators have departed and where others have arrived. “A Movement in Every Direction” takes the pulse of this coming and going that has not stopped. The rhythm and the feet continue.
A movement in all directions: the legacies of the great migration
Until September 11, Mississippi Museum of Art, 380 South Lamar Street, Jackson, Mississippi, (601) 960-1515; msmuseumart.org. He goes to the Baltimore Museum of Art, from October 30 to January 30. 29.