The Warmth of Other Suns: Telling the American Story of Displacement

As any visitor to The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement will see, the experience of displacement is a global one, rooted throughout history and continuing to present day. As American citizens, it is woven into our shared experience that we, a nation of immigrants, represent all races, ethnicities, and countries. However, we often overlook the internal displacement of peoples within our borders, both forced and willing, throughout our difficult history.

Through the epic Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA; d. 2000, Seattle, Washington, USA), the Phillips has been telling the story of the Great Migration since the 1940s. Rhythmic, heartfelt, and important—Lawrence’s work illustrates the movement of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th century, seeking better opportunities and living conditions for themselves and their families. A cornerstone of the Phillips’s permanent collection, this series offers a gateway to other works on display in the same gallery.

Installation view of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. On the walls left to right: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41), Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015), and Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (2005). In the center: Beverly Buchanan sculptures

Another important movement of African Americans northward—the Underground Railroad—finds representation in Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015) by Nari Ward (b. 1963, St. Andrew, Jamaica; lives in New York City, USA). Ward was inspired by the Congolese “cosmograms” inscribed in the floorboards of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The “cosmograms,” ancient prayer symbols that represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, not only informed the church’s enslaved parishioners that this was a gateway to freedom but also provided them an airway as they hid beneath the floorboards during the day until they could safely flee under cover of night. Ward’s copper-paneled piece is all about movement and transformation: the movement of slaves from south to north, the exhalation of breath from below floorboards to above, the rebirth of a slave as a free person at the end of their journey northward, and the transformative performance of the artist, who applied darkening patina to the bottoms of his shoes and stepped on the copper, leaving behind a trace, a memory of the movement.

Nari Ward Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015 Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Nari Ward, Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015, Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina, 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Detail of Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel: Oriented Right

The center of the gallery is populated by five small, ramshackle structures by Beverly Buchanan (b. 1940, Fuquay, North Carolina, US; d. 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA). Buchanan was inspired by the vernacular architecture of the rural south, where she lived most of her life. The sculptures echo the homes depicted in Lawrence’s Migration Series that were left behind when migrants moved north, acting as memorials and remembrances that still stubbornly stand in resistance to time and change. Buchanan tells a story through these structures, often titling works after real people and imbuing them with stories about imaginary and real-life inhabitants. Like Ward, Buchanan documents the movement of peoples by the traces they leave behind—symbols and memories of displacement, injustice, racism, and the hope of progress.

Works by Beverly Buchanan left to right: Room Added, 2011, Wood, 20 x 17 3/4 x 17 1/4 in., Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; Two Chairs, n.d.; Wood, 12 x 20 x 10 in., Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg; No Door, No Window, 1988, Wood and acrylic, 14 1/2 x 9 x 7 1/2 in., Private collection, Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Benny Andrews (b. 1930, Plainview, Georgia, USA; d. 2006, New York City, USA), who, like Buchanan, also grew up in the south, utilized his own background as a son of sharecropping parents to approach themes of mass displacement in US history. Completed during the time Andrews was traveling to New Orleans and the gulf coast to study the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Andrews’s Trail of Tears illustrates the long history of marginalization and displacement of minorities that continues to this day. His process is long and painstaking, building his scenes from layer upon layer of painted canvas and fabric, and includes, like Ward, a sort of performance. Andrews would roam his studio seeking out whatever fabric or shape called out to him and would often cut figures or images out of past canvases. This method created a remarkable blend of textures, colors, and shared experience between his work.

Benny Andrews Trail of Tears, 2005 Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears, 2005, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Detail of Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view at The Phillips Collection through September 22.

 

-Liza Strelka, Manager of Exhibitions

The Warmth of Other Suns: Ellis Island

It is estimated that more than 100 million Americans—or roughly 40 percent of the US population—are descended from the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during the years of its operation, from 1892 to 1954. Through photographs by Lewis Hine and Augustus Sherman, as well as archival photos, the exhibition The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement shares images from this important period in American history.

Lewis Hine, Photographic documents of social conditions, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Slavic Mother and Child at Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine (b. 1874, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA; d.1940, Dobbs Ferry, New York, USA) was a science teacher at New York’s Ethical Culture School in the early 1900s when he was given a camera and assigned the role of school photographer. Hine first visited Ellis Island on a commission from the school, and he returned regularly between 1904 and 1909, amassing over 200 photographs of families arriving and awaiting processing. Recognizing the power of such images to generate social change, Hine eventually pursued a career as a social photographer, capturing the conditions of Lower East Side tenements and urban factories. Hine’s works on view, as well as the other archival photographs, depict mainly European immigrants, who made up a large part of the mass movement of people entering through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Hine thought of himself foremost as a documentarian, and he carefully captioned each photograph with where it was shot and the subject’s country of origin. Hine died in poverty with little recognition, but many of his photographs were instrumental in reforming labor laws and many others survive as lasting documents of the early-20th century immigrant experience in the United States.

Augustus Sherman, Italian Woman (from Ellis Island Series), n.d. Modern prints, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman (b. 1865, Lynn Township, Pennsylvania, USA; d. 1925, New York City, USA) worked as a clerk at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925, witnessing generations of immigrants arriving from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, and in 1905, he began photographing individuals and families, encouraging his subjects to wear their traditional folk dress. While Sherman’s aim in making his portraits was to generate sympathy for the US government’s immigration agencies, his photos were sometimes used, unattributed, in anti-immigration publications rallying against so-called “aliens.” Sherman, however, distinguished his sitters as individuals, and his photographs are captioned with details, often including names, origins, and occupations. In the photographs exhibited, he captures two Italian women whose traditional dress is remarkable, in part because veils—which today might be associated with Islam—were a common feature among Italian peasants, and even today maintain an iconographic status among Christians. With their distinctive attire, these women serve as reminders of how cultural or religious otherness is perceived in different places and in various historical moments.

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Come see these images and many more by Hine and Sherman in The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, on view through September 22, 2019.

The Phillips Collects: Gee’s Bend Quilts

The Phillips Collection has recently acquired five Gee’s Bend Quilts from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, created by African American female quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Dedicated to promoting African American artists and traditions from the southern United States, the Souls Grown Deep Foundation has a large collection of works by the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, a remote, historically black community in Alabama. Dating back to the early 20th century, the women of Gee’s Bend have created hundreds of quilts; their uniqueness resulting from geographical isolation and cultural continuity as generations of women developed visual conversations through this artistic process. The quilts, created from recycled clothing and fabrics, feature varying patterns including abstraction, concentric squares, and geometric shapes, and include several levels of symbolism—a visual language that complements the Phillips’s collection of American modernism and broadens our understanding of modern art. The works represented by Souls Grown Deep Foundation reveal the complex history and culture of the African American South, and we are honored to have these stories be part of our growing permanent collection.

The five quilts acquired by the museum were created by Mary Lee Bendolph (b. 1935), Aolar Mosley (1912-1999) , Arlonzia Pettway (1923-2008), Malissia Pettway (1914-1997), and Lucy T. Pettway (1921-2004). Three other institutions have also recently acquired pieces from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation: the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts.

Souls Grown Deep explains some of the significance of the materials and patterns of the quilts:

Arlonzia Pettway, Lazy Gals, c. 1975, Corduroy, 89 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

In 1972, the Freedom Quilting Bee, a sewing cooperative based in Alberta, Alabama, near Gee’s Bend, secured a contract with Sears, Roebuck to produce corduroy pillow covers. Made of a wide‐wale cotton corduroy, the covers came in a variety of colors including “gold,” “avocado leaf,” “tangerine,” and “cherry red.” Production of the Sears pillow covers left little room for personal creativity, as labor at the Freedom Quilting Bee was divided to maximize daily output. Yet despite the standardized and repetitive process involved in producing the pillow covers, the availability of corduroy, a fabric seldom used before by the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers, stimulated a profound creative response. Leftover lengths and scraps of corduroy were taken home by workers at the Bee. Given to friends and family or bundled for sale within the community, the scraps were then transformed from standardized remnants into vibrant and individualized works of art.

Aolar Mosely, Blocks, c. 1955, Cotton, 75 x 83 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019, Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Aolar Mosely lost most of her own quilts in a fire in 1984. One of the few to survive is of the most basic and poignant sort, composed of random but more or less rectangular blocks.

Malissia Pettway, Housetop, c. 1960, Cotton, synthetics, corduroy, 81 x 81 in., The Phillips Collection, Museum purchase, and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2019. Photo credit Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio

Along County Road 29, many women refer to any quilt dominated by concentric squares as a “Housetop,” which reigns as the area’s most favored “pattern.” Its all‐around simplicity hosts many experiments in formal reduction and, at the same time, offers a compositional flexibility unchallenged by other multipiece patterns. The “Housetop,” from the composite block down to its constituent pieces, echoes the right angles of the quilt’s borders, initiating visual exchanges between the work’s edges and what is inside. Traditional African American “call and response,” a ritual technique of music and religious worship, is intrinsic to the target‐like push and pull among elements. The feedback effects have mesmerized and inspired generations of Gee’s Bend quiltmakers. Conceived broadly, the “Housetop” is an attitude, an approach toward form and construction. It begins with a medallion of solid cloth, or one of an endless number of pieced motifs, to anchor the quilt. After that, “Housetops” share the technique of joining rectangular strips of cloth so that the end of a strip’s long side connects to one short side of a neighboring strip, eventually forming a kind of frame surrounding the central patch; increasingly larger frames or borders are added until a block is declared complete.