Windy Citizen, February 4, 2008
FIELD MUSEUM'S EPIC 'MIGRATION OF THE NEGRO' CAPTURES IMMIGRANT HARDSHIP
By Mitchell Wu
The controversy surrounding immigration has never gone away.
Whether it's Middle Easter refugees in Europe or Mexican immigrants in the United States, they've all faced similar hardships and prejudice. The Migration of the Negro, an epic series of 60 paintings by Jacob Lawrence, reminds us of the perpetual nature of these struggles.
"It's a classic story that has universal themes," says Peter Nesbett, co-director of the new Field Museum exhibit on The Migration that beings this Friday. "[The paintings have] great relevance to contemporary life - the displacement of people all over the world, in search of new homelands, in search of better opportunities . . . escaping poverty [and] escaping poor social conditions."
Arguably the most celebrated African-American artist of his time, Lawrence began work on The Migration in 1940, and it recieved widespread acclain when the Downtown Gallery in New York exhibited it in November 1941.
"Anyone from any generation or age can come into this work," says Shelly Bancroft, who also co-directed the Field Museum's exhibit. Bancroft put on a similar exhibition with Nesbett at their not-for-profit art gallery Triple Candie in Harlem, and says the paintings should be appreciated for their unique aesthetic as well.
They're very simple in composition, and Lawrence would just use the bare elements to create his paintings so that there's no distraction," Bancroft says. "[You] can have a huge range of experiences, from appreciating them purely for their visual qualities, to appreciating the breadth of the journey, and the sadness of the journey...."
In conjunction with the exhibit, the Field Museum plans to record family histories from its own staff and members in the spring, according to Alaka Wali, director of the Center for Cultural Understanding and Change at the Field Museum. "Everybody has a story about a journey," says Wali, and she says members and staff will have an opportunity to document theirs for posterity.
The exhibit also presents an opportunity to see Lawrence's work in its entirety. Even though he intended the Migration paintings to be shown as a whole, the series did not remain together long, with different halves sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D. C. The originals have rarely been displayed together since, and though the Field Museum's exhibit consists of reproductions, Nesbett says they remain a complete and fairly accurate presentation that is close to Lawrence's original vision.