‘Great Migration’ at BAMPFA offers new personal, political works by Black artists

Detroit native Jamea Richmond-Edwards' 2022 "This Water Runs Deep" pictures her family leaving Mississippi during a flood. (Courtesy Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson/photo courtesy BAMPFA)

Migration transforms people and cultures. It also inspires artists who descended from those who migrated. 

“A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration,” which opened last week at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, presents commissioned works by 12 African American artists mostly examining personal and family experiences of migration via drawing, installations, paintings, photography, sculpture, and videography. 

Each in their way, the artists reveal the impact of migration on Black Americans who left the racist Jim Crow laws of the South for other parts of the country. Some say the movement began in the early 20th century and continued through the 1970s; others say it is still going on. 

On tour nationally and on view in Berkeley through Sept. 22, “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” was organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was co-curated by Ryan N. Dennis, formerly of MMA, now at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and Jessica Bell Brown, head of contemporary art at BMA. 

“Leave! Leave Now!” is a video installation and mixed media piece by Carrie Mae Weems detailing her family’s history. (Courtesy the artist/Jack Shainman Gallery/Photo by Mitro Hood/Courtesy Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art)

BAMPFA senior curator Anthony Graham described the great migration as “a complex history, not just a movement from South to North or West, but movement gone in many directions and continues from across country and internationally.” 

Leading a recent tour at the museum, Graham commented that many of the exhibition’s pieces have a personal touch, with most of the contributing artists describing their lives and families and the ways they came to be in places they are.  

“This exhibition is so much about place and specificity of place,” he said.  

Works by 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 are on view.  

Two large tableaus dominate the collection. 

In 2022’s “A Song for Travelers,” Pruitt, a Texas artist, imagines a family reunion of several generations, with relatives sitting in a circle gazing at him. Pruitt’s persona is wearing a kind of diving bell or science-fiction costume, “symbolizing that he is ready to leave Houston,” Graham noted. The figures are adorned in styles of their eras from Civil War soldier to Victorian matron to a cherubic infant seated on the floor. 

Robert Pruitt’s 2022 “A Song for Travelers,” a large work on paper mounted onto four aluminum panels, illustrates a family gathering of sorts. (Courtesy of the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery/Photo courtesy of Adam Reich)

Movement is another theme in Detroit artist Richmond-Edward’s 2022 “This Water Runs Deep.” A mixed media and collage on canvas with sound, the large work depicts members of Richmond-Edwards’ family leaving their home in the early 20th century. As storms and floods forced them from land they owned, the government used the event as an excuse to dispossess them of their property. In the tableau, they’re in a boat following the Mississippi River to Detroit. 

Describing the “fantastical and monumental” work, Graham said, “These depictions trace the process of creating relationships across generations.” 

Weems offers an affecting 25-minute video installation: “Leave! Leave Now!” describes the incredible journey of her grandfather, an activist tenant farmer who was presumed dead after being beaten by white men in Arkansas, but eventually made his way to safety in Chicago. It’s accompanied by digital prints, “The North Star,” picturing the heavenly bodies that must have guided Weems’ ancestor.   

Possibly the loveliest pieces in the exhibition are tapestries by Detroit-based Brionne, who reproduced family photographs from the 1920s-50s onto fabric, then studded the material with rhinestones. Touching images of her great grandmother, great aunts and other members of her family are in the series “An Ode to (You)’all.”  

Torkwase Dyson’s “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches),” foreground, and Mark Bradford’s “500” are among the more political than personal works in “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration.” (Dyson work courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery/Bradford work courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth/Photo courtesy BAMPFA)

Among the artists not specifically referencing their own families is New York-based Dyson, whose “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches)” is a large sculptural steel, glass and aluminum installation of connected trapezoids representing relationships between economies, plantations and landscapes; and Los Angeles-based Bradford, whose large “500” is a series of repeating oxidized panels with the text of a 1913 advertisement in the NAACP magazine The Crisis seeking Black families to settle on farmland in New Mexico.  

Upcoming “Great Migration” public programs include a curator’s tour led by Matthew Villar Miranda at noon on May 2; films by Akea Broinne and Jamea Richmond-Edwards screening at 1:30 p.m. June 15; and musician Brontez Purnell performing songs by his uncle, blues musician J. J. Malone, at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16.  

“A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration” continues through Sept. 22 at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. Admission is $12-$14, free for seniors, disabled and on the first Thursday of each month. Call (510) 642-0808 or visit bampfa.org.  

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