One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North
On a Tuesday afternoon I made my way to the Museum of Modern Art to check out the Jacob Lawrence Migration series, which for the first time in two decades is being shown its entirety, since half the collection was purchased by two different institutions (something hard to understand, but alas I guess this is how the art world worked back then). As I walked in, I saw a panel with the history of the migration of African-Americans from the Deep South and its consequences, including the St. Louis massacre of 1917 and other aspects.
The first room was dedicated to the actual series – all the paintings were placed side by side in sequence with Lawrence’s revised captions from 1993, going from the initial piece up to the last, unrevised caption that “The migrants kept coming.”
I am no art critic, but it was interesting to see how Lawrence had lots of attention to detail. On panel #41 he pictures a northern recruiter in jail, but we see little of him except for his hands – the jail is the main thing, probably a picture of the continuing oppression in the South and the fear that white folks in the community had of losing their servants – and instead of bettering conditions, they just fought.
There is a lot of interactivity at the exhibit, including several touch screens that explain every single painting with the original caption (the same can be seen on the website) with the historical background that inspired his work. And then there is the music – one room has a number of songs from the different eras, going from a London Symphony Rendition of “Afro American Symphony” to original recordings by the likes of Paul Robeson (a beautiful rendition of “Old Man River”), Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong (the poignant “Black and Blue”) and of course Duke Ellington. In another room, Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” as part of a selection of videos of performances by African-American artists – some of whom I had seen for the first time.
The part I found the most interesting, however, were the other pieces. Among my favorites were Lawrence’s depiction of segregation in New Orleans – a “Segregation Wall” separates whites from blacks, and “Bar and Grill” has a partition as well, while African-Americans stand in the back of the bus.
This shows a more evolved work from the artist – this is not a product of simple research but his impressions from actually visiting the South and taking in something that he probably did not see so harshly in the north (actually, in the Migration series there is a nod to Jim Crow’s reach to trains, where black folk were forced to sit in filthy cars along with cargo until they reached other parts of the country) In other parts of the show there were books on African-American life in different parts of the country (mostly Harlem) and a selection of journalistic photos.
I thought this was a wonderful experience, and I lamented the fact I could not spend a few more hours there taking the whole thing in. I must return there soon – there is so much more to learn and to absorb.