In 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then just twenty-three years old, completed a series of sixty small tempera paintings with text captions about the Great Migration. Within months of its making, Lawrences Migration series was divided between The Museum of Modern Art (even numbered panels) and the Phillips Memorial Gallery (odd numbered panels). The work has since become a landmark in the history of African-American art, a monument in the collections of both institutions, and a crucial example of the way in which history painting was radically reimagined in the modern era. In 2015 and 2016, marking the centenary of the Great Migrations start (191516), the panels will be reunited in exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art and then The Phillips Collection. Published to accompany the exhibition, this publication both grounds Lawrences Migration series in the cultural and political debates that shaped the young artist's work and highlights the series continued resonance for artists and writers working today.
An essay by Leah Dickerman situates the series in relation to heady contemporary discussions of the artists role as a social agent; a growing imperative to write and give image to black history in the late 1930s and early 1940s; and an emergent sense of activist politics. Elsa Smithgall traces the exhibition history of the Migration panels from their display at the Downtown Gallery in New York in 1941 to their acquisition by MoMA and the Phillips Collection a year later. Short commentaries on each panel explore Lawrences career and painting technique and aspects of the social history of the Migration portrayed in his images. The catalogue also debuts ten poems newly commissioned from acclaimed poets written in response to the Migration series. Elizabeth Alexander (honoured as the poet at President Obamas first inauguration) introduces the poetry project with a discussion of the poetic quality of Lawrences work, as well as the impact and legacy of the poets in his orbit including Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.
Leah Dickerman is a Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Elsa Smithgall is a Curator at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and professor in the Department of African American Studies at Yale University, CT. Alexander wrote and presented the inaugural poem at President Barak Obama's first inauguration ceremony in January 2009. Rita Dove is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia, a former U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-1995), and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1987). Nikky Finney is the John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair in Southern Letters and Literature at the University of South Carolina. She is also the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry (2011). Terrance Hayes is a Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, PA and the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry (2010). In 2014 Terrance was awarded a MacArthur genius award. Tyehimba Jess is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Yusef Komunyakaa is a Global Distinguished Professor of English at New York University and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1994). Jodi Roberts is a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA. Patricia Spears Jones is a New York City-based poet. Her work was included in The Best American Poetry 2000, edited by Rita Dove. Natasha Trethewey is the U.S. Poet Laureate (2012-present), and the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, GA. She is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (2007). Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is an Associate Professor at Cornell University, NY. She is also the winner of the National Book Award for Poetry (2009). Crystal Williams is the Associate Vice President and Chief Diversity Office and Professor of the English Department at Bates College, ME. Kevin Young is the Atticus Haygood Professor of English and Curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Collection at Emory University. He is the winner of the PEN/Open Book award (2013) and Finalist for the National Book Award (2003).
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