‘A Movement in Every Direction’: Major new art exhibit grapples with The Great Migration

Robert Pruitt's "A Song for Travelers (detail), 2022. Charcoal, conté, and pastel on paper, mounted onto
four aluminum panels. Courtesy of the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery.

During the 20th century, 6 million African Americans left the South for cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The Great Migration altered American culture. It changed the lives of those who left and those who stayed behind.

In “A Movement in Every Direction,” a new exhibit that opens Friday at the Mississippi Museum of Art, a dozen leading contemporary Black artists were asked to explore how the Great Migration affected the nation and their own families.

“All of them have a connection to the Great Migration and about half of them have ancestral ties to Mississippi,” said MMA’s Chief Curator Ryan N. Dennis, who organized the exhibit with curator Jessica Bell Brown of the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Larry W. Cook's "Chester from the series Let My Testimony Sit Next To Yours" (detail), 2022. inkjet print, pigment-based, printed on Hahnemuhle Baryta fine art paper. 40” x 50”. Courtesy of the artist

The opening of the exhibit will be celebrated with a weekend of free talks, guided tours and music.

Friday night’s events are for MMA members only, and include a conversation at 6 p.m. led by Ebony Lumumba, first lady of Jackson and associate professor of English at Jackson State University, with two of the show’s artists, Robert Pruitt and Leslie Hewitt. The talk will be followed at 7:30 p.m. with a performance by Theaster Gates Jr. and The Black Monks, which combine blues and gospel with the musical tradition of Eastern monks.

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Saturday’s events are open to the general public. Talks throughout the day will feature artists and scholars discussing the exhibit and the Great Migration. The day will conclude with a 5 p.m. reception hosted by ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, first lady of Mississippi Elee Reeves and Lumumba followed by a 7:30 p.m. concert by the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra at Thalia Mara Hall featuring works by Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin and the African American composer Florence Price.

Registration is required for the weekend events. See www.msmuseumart.org for a full schedule.

The tone of “A Movement in Every Direction” is set by a massive charcoal and pastel work by Pruitt called “A Song for Travelers” that shows a generation-spanning community gathered to send a traveler off on a journey. Other pieces include a hauntingly beautiful video installation by Allison Janae Hamilton named “A House Called Florida,” Southern landscape photos by Larry W. Cook and Mark Bradford’s oversized copies of 1930s ads calling settlers to Blackdom, an all-Black town in New Mexico.

A still from Allison Janae Hamilton's video installation "A House Called Florida" (2022)

“I was really happy that the curators took the position to not continue to commodify Black suffering, and instead focused on resilience and self determination,” said Monique Davis, chief equity and inclusion officer for the MMA. “People made choices with an agency and I think that’s a story that hasn’t been told often.”

For Dennis, the exhibit’s co-curator, the Great Migration is not an event from the past. The works commissioned for “A Movement in Every Direction” show how that massive migration continues to shape American culture. And the way the artists in “A Movement in Every Direction” respond to the Great Migration helps us understand the world today.

“This is right in our face. Migration is still happening today,” Dennis said.

Climate change, the Black Lives Matter protest and the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many people in the United States to relocate.

“What this show has taught me is that socio-economic and cultural movements in America lead to migration, lead to re-tooling, re-strategizing and redefining,” she said.

“A Movement in Every Direction” will be on display through Sept. 11, when it moves to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Events and special programs will be held throughout the run of the show. The concluding events in the fall include a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of “Caste” and “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and a concert by MacArthur genius grant-winning jazz pianist Jason Moran and singer Alicia Hall Moran.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

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