A recent review by Philip Kennicott of photographer Allan deSouza’s installation, The World Series, which responds to Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series, prompted me to take a second look at the artwork and jot down my thoughts.
Kennicott writes of deSouza’s work’s “. . . (perhaps unconscious) appeal to the class of people who travel, who are rich and privileged enough to enjoy the sweet dislocation of life in multiple time zones.” Indeed, about half of the photographs in deSouza’s installation are of airborne postmodern travel, with the gray concrete and glass ubiquity of airports or shot from an airplane window, with no clear indication whether the image was shot in Jakarta, Prague, Paris, or Milwaukee.
It is in this visual continuity of deSouza’s images of air travel–with their dominant color and style of photographic gray–that I find an interesting parallel with Lawrence’s The Migration Series. The visual equivalent to deSouza’s grey is Lawrence’s use of brown, frequently painted with a dry brush, which the artist used to suggest the wooden floor of southern shotgun shacks, parched fields ravaged by drought or boll weevils, or the interior of railroad cars and train stations. Lawrence’s browns are a base color that evokes the depleted South that African Americans departed in droves.
DeSouza’s photographs and their glossy grays with metallic highlights and reflective surfaces express the 21st century world through which one travels (migrates). And while for many museum-goers and art critics, deSouza’s photographs may suggest the “sweet dislocation of modern life,” for today’s migrants they might suggest the alien world in which one travels to escape oppression and seek opportunity. Here I discern a parallel between the two artists’ work. For the African Americans who traveled North during the great migration, the trips by train were not ordinary, not commonplace. They were journeys, perhaps taken once or twice in a lifetime. So it may be for today’s immigrants who travel by plane infrequently, but do make these trips, even if only once or twice in a lifetime.
However, there is also divergence in the means of travel in the two series. Lawrence’s series would never be construed as a commentary on the nature of train travel. DeSouza’s work clearly evokes feelings of air travel. Does this make each artists’ work weaker by comparison? For me, the answer is no. Rather this difference speaks to the earnest power of modernist artists to reveal truths, in contrast to post-modernist artists, such as deSouza, who are more about making observations and asking questions.
-Paul Ruther, Manager of Teacher Programs