NEW YORK — One hundred years ago, African-Americans began a mass exodus from the rural South, heading north in search of economic opportunity and social equality. The Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to that movement in a rare exhibition of a series chronicling the phenomenon from artist Jacob Lawrence, himself the son of migrants.
His Great Migration series, featuring 60 poignant narrative paintings, is the centerpiece of the exhibition that runs through Sept. 7.
Lawrence, who died in 2000, was only 23 when he completed the works in 1941. The small tempera paintings depict various scenes of the multidecade mass movement that began in 1915. Executed in bold colors, they portray scenes of life and death, work, home and hardships for the millions of African Americans who relocated North in pursuit of a better future.
The year they were finished, the paintings were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, marking 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, D.C., with each acquiring half.
The exhibition, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” 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 of performances by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday; photographs by Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks; and 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 will hold a panel discussion next week led by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on the continuing legacy of Jim Crow: How it shapes issues of race, justice and public policy today. It also has commissioned 10 noted poets 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 pushing toward three ticket windows marked Chicago, New York and St. Louis.
Lawrence was the son of migrants who moved to Harlem when he was 13. “He often spoke of hearing stories of people ‘coming up’ from friends and family,” said Dickerman. He spent months researching the Great Migration before embarking on the series, beginning by coming up with short captions for the scenes he planned.
In an image of a large group of migrants weighed down with heavy bags he simply states: “The migration gained momentum.” Another of a migrant worker with his tenant landlord says “tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters.”
Among other reasons blacks left in droves were lynchings in the South and the freedom to vote in the North, 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 a painting of a withering field.
“The works we’ve gathered in the show ... testify to the importance of the migration as an extraordinary agent of cultural innovation, bringing the sounds and tastes and language of the South into a new urban framework,” said Dickerman. “Out of this came new genres and scores of landmark works — the very foundation for what we think of as the culture of urban America.”
If the exhibition “sparks a conversation, we’ll have done one thing about keeping our attention on one of the greatest issues of today,” added museum Director Glenn Lowry.