The Great Migration refers to the journey of millions of African Americans who left the Southern United States between 1916 and 1970 for destinations across the country. While it is often framed as a proactive move in search of better economic opportunities — as with the automotive boom in Detroit — it was equally a flight from the brutal segregation and social oppression that beset the post-Reconstruction South. The increased introduction of this already diasporic population to cities across the US imprinted on every aspect of national culture.

Now, the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) and the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) are seeking to reflect on the Black culture that flourished amid the Great Migration. They have gathered a cadre of artists, writers, musicians, and makers for a jointly organized exhibition that will unveil newly commissioned works by 12 of the most acclaimed African American artists working in the US today. 

The exhibition, called A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, will include new works across media by artists including Mark Bradford, Torkwase Dyson, and Carrie Mae Weems. The project is co-curated by Ryan N. Dennis, MMA Chief Curator and Artistic director of the museum’s Center for Art and Public Exchange, and Jessica Bell Brown, the BMA’s associate curator of Contemporary Art.

“We asked artists to journey with us to explore their connections to the South, and to ruminate on migration, ancestry, land, and how such themes influence their movement in the world as artists,” said Dennis and Brown in a joint press statement announcing the exhibition. 

“In many ways, the story of the Great Migration is neither complete in its current telling nor finished in its contemporary unfolding,” they continued. “We invited artists, whose practices deal with personal and communal histories, familial ties, the Black experience, and the ramifications of land ownership and environmental shifts, among so much more, to consider how we can expand our understanding of this essential moment in American history.” 

Christopher Bedford, director of the BMA, called the exhibition “a particularly meaningful project for our community in Baltimore, which was and continues to be shaped by this critical migration of people.”

The full list of participating artists is Mark Bradford, Akea Brionne Brown, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates, Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and Carrie Mae Weems. In addition to the newly-commissioned works, the project will present a two-volume publication, one of which will catalogue scholarly work around the Great Migration. The second will examine the exhibition content in detail, including essays from the curators, as well as writers Kiese Laymon, Jessica Lynne, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, and Dr. Willie J. Wright. MMA and BMA also have plans for a range of digital experiences to be presented in tandem with the exhibition to allow access for visitors who can’t see the show in person.

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...