A Movement In Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration features the work of 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.
These 12 Black contemporary artists, some with direct ties to the South, and a few with direct ties to Baltimore, created newly commissioned works that debuted first at the Mississippi Museum of Art in April 2022, and now at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The exhibition was co-curated by Jessica Bell Brown, curator and department head of contemporary art at the BMA, and Ryan N. Dennis, chief curator and artistic director of the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
From 1910 to 1970, more than six million Black Americans fled the American South to escape racist violence and the social, cultural, and economic oppression of Jim Crow.
For eons our ancestors have moved and migrated, involuntarily and voluntarily. Each movement, in each direction, extended legacies that Black folks embody and live out every day.
These legacies are manifested and on display in the gallery at the Baltimore Museum of Art, through the artists whose work is on display, and the two Black women who co-curated it, Ryan N. Dennis and Jessica Bell Brown. A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration collapses both time and space. As you move through and experience the artworks, viewers encounter personal and collective narratives, reconciliation with the past, and dreams for the future. Because of Brown and Dennis’ expansive and intentional labor and care, the show inevitably will provide an opportunity for Black Baltimoreans to engage with the leading voices in Black contemporary art.
The exhibition is a groundswell of Black creativity and cultural production. It is an illustration of the power of Black imagination, of the curators and the 12 artists. There were moments that called to me specifically, including Theaster Gates Jr.’s The Double Wide (2022), where glass jars full of pickled items, some obtained by his own relative in Mississippi, are on display. I couldn’t help but think of my maternal grandmother’s house in Arkansas and the trailer next door to it.
Robert Pruitt’s A Song For Travelers (2022), based on a family reunion portrait, references Afrofuturism, the past, and his own family’s Houston roots. For me, the work is anchored by a Black woman wearing a Texas Southern University sweater, which calls up the legacy of HBCUs in Texas, like Prairie View A&M and Huston–Tillotson University. On the other side of the work, an alien or time-traveler alerts visitors that there are other worlds possible.
The show ends in a mammoth crescendo that is Zöe Charlton’s Permanent Change of Station (2022), the artist’s largest drawing to date. A Black American woman dressed in military clothing turned away from the viewer prepares to launch a plane into a whites-only suburb before her. Rows of leaves frame the artist’s grandmother’s house, which often appears throughout her work. Charlton grew up on military bases around the world and this artwork brings to mind another type of migration—how the military has historically been a vehicle for the migration of Black folk.
Brown joined the BMA in 2019, and began working on the exhibition in the spring of 2020. Since joining the BMA’s staff, she has curated How Do We Know The World?, which featured the work of contemporary artists living and working in Baltimore; Thaddeus Mosley: Forest, the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in ten years; and Stephanie Syjuco: Vanishing Point (Overlay).
Brown’s own curatorial practice is her co-creation of the Black Art Incubator at Recess, which she launched with Taylor Renee Aldridge, Kimberly Drew, and Jessica Lynne to create a space for Black artists, scholars, and curators to connect and collaborate. Some of those artists contributed to Legacies Of The Great Migration supplemental materials.
After the preview of the show, I met with Jessica Bell Brown over Zoom, and we discussed the development of the show from an idea and collaboration between Brown and Dennis to its opening here in Baltimore, Maryland.
Teri Henderson: Where are you from? Where are your people from? And where are your roots?
Jessica Bell Brown: I was born in Macon, Georgia. I lived there [until I started] middle school. I also claim Thomson, Georgia, which is where my mom’s side of the family is from. My dad’s side of the family is from Macon. All of my people are either in Central Georgia or along what they call the CSRA (Central Savannah River Area) regions. I have some folks in Michigan and Detroit, I have some folks in Ohio. But most of my family is in Georgia.
TH: How would you describe the work that you do these days?
JB: I’m a curator. I think the most sort of conservative aspect of my job is caring for objects and caring for the galleries in the museum. As someone who works with contemporary art, my job is caring for artists, and that looks like a number of different things, like holding space for their creativity and imaginations to sort of manifest work that has not yet come into being, or visions that may not have come yet into being. Some of that is big picture thinking, but a lot of it is project management and relationship building within and across teams. First and foremost, I try to prioritize holding space for artists and the communities that they usher into relation with the institution.
TH: When did you begin working on the exhibition?
JB: I would say the top of 2020 was when we kind of really kind of kicked it off. I started [at the BMA] in the fall of 2019 in the midst of the pandemic.
TH: So the show was funded in part by a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation?
JB: Ryan and I both received the Andy Warhol grant; we applied for it together shortly after we had both joined our institutions.
The broad concept for the exhibition [was] Baltimore and Jackson sort of being connected by the Great Migration, and that [connection] being the kind of impetus for an institutional partnership. When we came on board, we inhabited that prompt a little more expansively, and it’s really been kind of a day-one collaboration to the fullest.
Ryan N. Dennis and I have been in the same orbit for a long time, and have had many mutual friends, but hadn’t actually officially met until we started working together on this project.
I just had from day one or day zero immense, immense respect and trust and admiration for her. I feel like we’re very like-minded in terms of feeling like curatorial work is not just putting on beautiful, thought-provoking, [and] interesting shows, but also a practice of partnership on many different levels, and advocacy first and foremost, too.
I think, from the beginning, we just vibed. We like to use the term ‘alignment,’ because we have really truly been in alignment for the past two years.
Even when we shared our list of artists who we might be interested in talking to, or working with, the crossover was eerily wild. I think the friendship that emerged from our partnership on this project, I don’t know if I’ve experienced anything like it.
TH: This show provided me the opportunity to see artists like Theaster Gates Jr.’s works or Carrie Mae Weems’ work in real life. I’ve been thinking about how powerful and special it is that Black students in Baltimore will have the opportunity to see and interact with these artists’ works.
JB: I think the learning potential of this exhibition is profound. I think just the history alone. I don’t think that I learned about the Great Migration when I was in high school, or middle school. I don’t think it was until college that I even understood that kind of framework for how massive of a historical event it was in its unfolding.
When we set out to do the show, we knew that, even though it was contemporary art, that we wanted more of a historical grounding, and to understand how scholars have understood the Great Migration and all of its reverberations across time. So we were like, let’s do a critical reader, let’s put all of our research [and] our team’s research into a book. Then let’s bring together the voices of the artists and do a roundtable discussion at the very beginning of the project, so we can feel like there’s a sort of sense of a contemporary and personal take on this history at the same time. And since we have this Black foodways chapter, let’s talk to some chefs and get them to contribute their family recipes and offer some narration.
The critical reader became a really amazing opportunity to provide a resource, not just to students and young scholars, but to the general public to kind of see all that goes into foregrounding a project like this. We also learned that Jackson City Public Schools in Mississippi is using the critical reader as a curriculum.
JB: I’m overwhelmed at the sort of immense sense of opportunity to create another kind of portal for learning. The art is incredible, right? But the stories that are sort of unpacked through the art; we are really excited to be able to share in a sort of multifaceted way.
TH: There were a lot of moments in the show that made me examine my own migration related to being a Texan who has relocated to Baltimore. The jars of pickled foods inside of “Double Wide” reminded me of my mom’s jars of pig’s feet and chitlins.
JB: His [Theaster Gates Jr.’s] cousin Charlene did some of the jams and jellies inside the pavilion. Girl, he had us going to Silver City, Mississippi, to pick up some jams.
JB: What I loved about making this project is that you can’t just conceptualize these things, these connections, these sensibilities. It’s family, you have to—you have to be in it.
That also means wading through, and being on a journey with, the artists like Larry [Cook], you know, when he talks about his father, and the process of COVID and grief, and collective grief.
In the making of this work, he was working through his own family stuff, processing family stuff, making new work.
The personal, the political, the structural, the conceptual, all these things kind of live together really beautifully with this project.
TH: When you think about the exhibition, what words come to mind immediately?
JB: Agency, refuge, self-determination, collectivity, community. And also memory, speculation, and imagination, which I think is fundamental. We have to be able to imagine our lives, and migration is driven by being able to imagine that there’s got to be something better beyond where we are now.
TH: Yes, you specifically spoke about that when we were viewing Steffani Jemison’s work.
You mentioned migration being a choice, and how women were the last sometimes to be able to make that choice.
JB: Sometimes that choice is made for us.
JB: Right, like, we could [migrate], but all these other people depend on us, and if we do, then what happens? Is that really a choice? I don’t know if it’s so black and white.
But I do think that we have to examine agency wherever possible, even if it’s an absence of agency. I think life is so complex [and] history is so complex and nuanced, and my hope is that folks get to walk away with that deep sense of complexity in our show.
TH: Can you talk about the interactive storytelling element of the show?
JB: Migration is a universal human condition. The interactive storytelling project opens up a space for people to plug into the broader themes of the show, even if they were not a part of the Great Migration. We all kind of have nodal points elsewhere. Whether it’s us personally, or our ancestors.
I was talking to some of the [museum] docents yesterday. It was probably one of my favorite top three moments from yesterday [the press preview/opening]. I had to step into the galleries to do a quick kind of walkthrough of the AV setup. I had maybe three or four conversations with the docents who were doing their tours.
One of our docents, I believe her name is Miss Margaret, and Miss Yvonne and Miss Claudette, were all talking about how they were a part of the Great Migration. That they couldn’t stay where they were, they needed to leave for the prospects of jobs.
Miss Yvonne said, “I could see what my life would play out and look like if I had remained where I was.” And I don’t know if folks really get the chance to talk about their personal stories in these kinds of contexts. Our interpretation team has really done an incredible job of finding a way to make people feel empowered and safe to do so, in an art context.
TH: Finally, How do you practice self-care?
JB: I check in. I check in with myself. I like to have quiet time. Alone time. I like to call my friends—I love my friends—including Ryan, and a few childhood best friends, when life gets crazy. You might get quiet for a while. But you can always kind of come back to each other and, like, jump back into the conversation. There’s just something deeply restorative about being able to plug in with your loved ones. My practice of self-care has been evolving. I think part of it is, like, listening to being better, as I get older, being better about listening to my intuition and my gut.
A Movement In Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration is on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through January 29, 2023. Ticket prices are $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $12 for groups, $5 for students with ID, and $5 for youth ages seven to eighteen. BMA Members, children ages six and under, and student groups are admitted free.