Jacob Lawrence’s 1941 Paintings Spark Talk About Racial Injustice Today

It’s begging for a comparison to Ferguson. But you’ll have to provide that yourself.

Art museums may seem like the guardians of the past, but they are also the provocateurs of the present, harnessing cultural artifacts to challenge — even incite — today’s visitors. Great exhibitions are organized not merely to rehash relics, but to reevaluate the artworks in new contexts. And, with those artworks’ aid, to reevaluate ourselves.

We have a tendency to forget that dynamic relationship between old art and new life until, by chance, a high-profile exhibit resonates with an even higher profile national conversation. Such is the case with the Museum of Modern Art’s current show “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” in New York.

Its centerpiece is New Jersey-born Lawrence’s iconic series: 60 paintings depicting the northward migration of African Americans from 1910-1930. During that period, black populations increased by almost forty percent in Northern states, gathering around urban centers like Chicago and New York. The so-called “Great Migration” radically shifted the social and political landscape of America, setting the stage for everything from the Harlem Renaissance to today’s racially-charged stop-and-frisk debates.

Lawrence’s work, completed in 1941, cycles between different aspects of the journey. Some paintings depict the process of transit, some the social and economic reasons for departure, and others the mixed responses on arrival. His geometric, pared down scenes are done in a striking color palette: bold blue and yellow popping from a background of browns and black. Each image is paired with an extended caption — all of which were pre-written with the assistance of Lawrence’s wife, Gwendolyn Knight, before he ever set brush to paint.

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By Colton Valentine | July 28, 2015


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