Between 1915 and 1970, in the wake of racial terror during the post-Reconstruction period, millions of Black Americans fled from their homes to other areas within the South and to other parts of the country. This remarkable movement of people, known as the Great Migration, caused a radical shift in the demographic, economic, and sociopolitical makeup of the United States. A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration brings together twelve contemporary artists to consider the complex impact of this period on their lives, as well as on social and cultural life, with newly commissioned works ranging from large-scale installation, immersive film, and tapestry to photography, painting, and mixed media. Featured artists are Akea Brionne, Mark Bradford, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates Jr., Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Carrie Mae Weems.
A Movement in Every Direction presents a departure from traditional accounts of the Great Migration, which are often understood through a lens of trauma, and reconceptualizes them through stories of self-possession, self-determination, and self-examination. While the South did lose generations of courageous, creative, and productive Black Americans due to racial and social inequities, the exhibition expands the narrative by introducing people who stayed in, or returned to, the region during this time. Additionally, the Brooklyn Museum’s presentation centers Brooklyn as another important site in the Great Migration, highlighting historical and contemporary census data about the borough’s migration patterns. Visitors are encouraged to share their own personal and familial stories of migration through an oral history “pod” available in the exhibition galleries.
About Robert Pruitt’s work, pictured above, from the museum’s wall information plaque-
“A Song for Travelers” celebrates the individual and Black collective experiences that have shaped the histories of rural East Texas and Houston’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards. In this drawing-based on an early 1970’s photograph of a reunion of the artist’s family in Dobbin, Texas -sixteen people gather around a seated central figure about to embark on a journey. During the creation of this work, the masked traveler became a stand-in for Pruitt, who had recently left his hometown of Houston.
Pruitt often draws inspiration from his and others’ family photographs while examining historical events that have impacted Houston’s Black communities. Wearing costumes and adorned with items that reference various aspects of Black culture found in schools, social clubs, and religious spaces, the figures in the work reflect the numerous networks that remained and flourished in the South. Merging the Great Migration period with the present, Pruitt centers the Black neighborhoods across the southern region that served as safe havens and rich sites of cultural expression for migrants during the twentieth century. This link extends to today as many Black Americans leave the northern and western cities that once attracted their elders and return to the South.
Allison Janae Hamilton’s A House Called Florida, below, takes the viewer on a journey through part of northern Florida’s natural beauty.
From the museum’s information plaque about the video installation-
Allison Janae Hamilton produced the three-channel film installation A House Called Florida in her hometown region of northern Florida. The breathtaking landscapes of Apalachicola Bay and the swampy Blackwater Lakes of Florida’s Big Bend frame musicians, dancers, motorists, a Victorian house, and a slow resounding rhythm.
The artist references French Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar’s 1946 short story “Casa Tomada.” (“House Taken Over”) about ghosts that slowly take over a home and eventually push out its owners, room by room. Hamilton echoes the story’s theme of displacement with two regally dressed, spirit-like protagonists who move about the house engaging in mark-making and ritual performances. Hamilton’s film pays tribute to the Black Floridians who remained in the Red Hills and the Forgotten Coast regions, despite the racial violence and environmental precariousness they faced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Carrie Mae Weems‘ personal and moving contribution is in two parts- a series of photographs and a unique digital video installation.
The museum’s description of the work-
Carrie Mae Weems explores a painful family story: the disappearance of her grandfather Frank Weems, a tenant farmer and union activist who was attacked by a white mob in Earle Arkansas, in 1936. Presumed dead, he narrowly escaped and made his way to Chicago on foot, never again reuniting with his family. Frank Weems may have followed the North Star to Chicago. Weems’s series of seven prints, The North Star, makes an apt metaphor for Frank’s life. In Leave! Leave Now! Weems conjures the figure of her grandfather with a Pepper’s Ghost, a late nineteenth-century form of illusion first used in theater. By weaving historical events with fragmented family stories, photographs, poetry, music, and interviews, the artist reveals the tragedy of her grandfather’s disappearance and the aftermath.
This exhibition will close on Sunday, June 25th, 2023.