Blacks in Government (BIG) Visit the Phillips During Black History Month

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 27: Many men stayed behind until they could take their families north with them., 1940-41, Casein tempera on hardboard 12 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1942 © 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This month, Chief Diversity Officer Makeba Clay hosted 40 participants from the US Government Accountability Office’s chapter of the Blacks in Government (BIG) Affinity Group. Having chosen “Migration” as the overarching theme for their Black History Month celebrations, BIG members thought seeing panels from Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940–41) at the Phillips would be the perfect activity.

Senior Curator Elsa Smithgall led guests through a guided tour and discussion about Lawrence’s journey, fleshing out notable details about his life and work. For example, many were surprised to learn that Lawrence began by writing all 60 captions before painting each accompanying board with the help of his wife, artist Gwendolyn Knight. As the group made their way around the room, they connected many of the issues that Lawrence captured in the 1940s to several issues still prevalent today. In the words of one participant, “It’s still present day.”

Clay also made connections to the artwork, sharing personal stories about her family and asking the group to determine which panel might hold the most significance for her (see above). Everyone left expressing deep gratitude for an afternoon that resonated in ways that seemed to uplift the crowd. One guest summed it up this way: “I don’t typically go to museums, but coming with a group and having a guide, with the chance to hear from others, was really impactful.”

To learn more about Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and the accompanying educational resources, click here.

By Gia Harewood

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