Exhibit a tribute to African-American mass migration
One hundred years ago, African-Americans began a mass exodus from the rural South. They headed north. They were in search of economic opportunity and social equality. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is paying tribute to that movement. It is showing a rare exhibition of a series of paintings that chronicle the phenomenon. The artist is Jacob Lawrence. He was the son of migrants.
His Great Migration series features 60 poignant narrative paintings. They are the centerpiece of the exhibition. It runs through Sept. 7.
Lawrence died in 2000. He was only 23 when he completed the works in 1941. The paintings depict various scenes of the mass movement that began in 1915. They portray scenes of life and death, work, home and hardships. During this period, millions of African Americans relocated North. They were in pursuit of a better future.
The paintings are in bold colors. It was 1941 when they first were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan. That is a borough in New York. That exhibition marked the first time a black artist was represented by a New York gallery. Soon after, they entered the collections of MoMA and The Phillips Collection in Washington. Each acquired half.
The exhibition is titled, "One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North." It is the first time the entire series is on view at MoMA in 20 years. Phillips showed all 60 panels in 2008.
To put the paintings in historical context, the exhibition also includes video and audio recordings. Musical performances by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday can be heard. There are photographs by Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks. There are also writings by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. A special interactive website allows people to explore zoomable high-resolution images of all 60 panels.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum has commissioned 10 noted poets. They have been asked to create poetry based on Lawrence's series.
"The migration series is not history set in the past, but rather an ongoing phenomenon," said exhibition curator Leah Dickerman. "It's contemporary history focused on the experience of ordinary people. And he tells it in a contemporary, almost cinematic way."
The series opens with an image of a chaotic crowd in a train station. The crowd is pushing toward three ticket windows. They are marked Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
Lawrence was the son of migrants. The family moved to Harlem when he was 13. Harlem is a section of New York City.
"He often spoke of hearing stories of people 'coming up' from friends and family," said Dickerman of Lawrence. The artist spent months researching the Great Migration before embarking on the series. He began by coming up with short captions for the scenes he planned.
One image is of a large group of migrants weighed down with heavy bags. Lawrence simply states: "The migration gained momentum."
Another image is of a migrant worker with his tenant landlord. The caption says, "tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters."
Among other reasons blacks left in droves were lynchings in the South. There was freedom to vote in the North, as well, Lawrence said in captions accompanying other pictures. So many left that "crops were left to dry and spoil. There was no one to tend to them," he says for one painting. It shows a withering field.
If the exhibition "sparks a conversation, we'll have done one thing about keeping our attention on one of the greatest issues of today," noted museum Director Glenn Lowry.
Critical thinking challenge: Why is the exhibition entitled One-Way Ticket?