Truth by Train/Ambiguity by Air

(left) Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series, Panel no. 3: From every southern town migrants left by the hundreds to travel north.”, 1940-41. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (right) Allan deSouza, “Specter” from “The World Series, 2010-11.” Courtesy of the artist and Talwar Gallery, New York / New Delhi.

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. Continue reading “Truth by Train/Ambiguity by Air” »

South to North and Around the World

Finishing touches – from labels to wall paint – complete the installation of Allan deSouza’s new Intersections project, The World Series. The San Francisco-based artist talks about his work tonight at 6:30 pm, no reservation required.

Allan deSouza's new "The World Series" responds to Jacob Lawrence's "The Migration Series," painted 70 years ago. Photo: Amy Wike

Labels are prepared and placed with each of the 30 panels in "The World Series." Photo: Amy Wike

Installations Manager Bill Koberg places labels beneath works from Jacob Lawrence's "The Migration Series" in an adjacent gallery. Photo: Amy Wike

Step Afrika! and the inspiration of Jacob Lawrence

C. Brian Williams, founder and director of Step Afrika!, guest blogs about the dance company’s new performance series inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans, 1940-1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Step Afrika! opens on June 15 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center for an incredible partnership with The Phillips Collection around Jacob Lawrence’s iconic The Migration Series (1941).

And I couldn’t be more nervous . . .

For seventeen years, I have been leading Step Afrika! around the world, performing for tens of thousands from Maine to Madagascar. Yet the chance to dance in response to such a legendary painter’s work is both humbling and exhilarating at the same time.

This will be a first-time merger for Step Afrika! and the visual arts world, something I have longed to do for years. I have always been a fan of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, of course, and his outstanding role in documenting American culture. I love it when artists not only create great works but also contribute something to the historical record, giving us new ways to reflect on our history as a people and nation.

Lawrence’s work embodies that for me and is THE inspiration for our performances from June 15-26. For the past seven months, we have been studying intensely the Great Migration of African Americans in the early 1900s. I have even read some of the letters written by Southern migrants longing for a better opportunity “up North.”

Here’s one excerpt that shows the thought process that inspired over 6 million African Americans to leave the South:

Houston, Tex., April 29, 1917

Dear Sir:  . . . in your last issue I saw a want ad that appealed to me. I am a Negro, age 37, and am an all round foundry man…I have worked at various shops and I have always been able to make good. It is hard for a black man to hold a job here, as prejudice is very strong.  I have never been discharged on account of dissatisfaction with my work, but I have been “let out” on account of my color.  I have a family and am anxious to leave here…

The early 1900s were an extremely difficult time for the country in general and particularly for African Americans. Some 35 years after the ending of slavery, black men and women continued to face considerable challenges in the South from harsh working conditions with unfair wages and the bitter reality of lynchings.

These are all issues that Lawrence dealt with in his work. How Step Afrika! incorporates them into the performance will be the challenge. It can be a tough story . . . but with tremendous beauty and inspiration as well. A perfect test for the incredible artists currently in the company . . .

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 17: Tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters, 1940-1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1942. © 2010 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York