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

Students create #Panel61

Kelly O’Brien teaches African American History at The Milton Hersey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Her class studied the Great Migration and used the Phillips’s Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series website as a resource, including imagining what Panel 61 of the series would look like. Explore their artworks and read about how Ms. O’Brien’s class learned from Lawrence’s artwork.

Last year, when I was building our African American History course here at the Milton Hershey School, in particular the unit on “Migration and Identity,” I was so happy to find Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and to use it as a resource for teaching. When I realized the Philips’s website also challenged viewers to create their own panel, I thought, “What a great educational opportunity for my students!”

In this unit, we began by considering the origins of the Migration by simply looking at the historical background using resources like PBS’s “Many Rivers to Cross” website and documentaries. We also considered the personal experience of the Migration by studying excerpts from The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Finally, the students examined Jacob Lawrence’s panels and created a brief timeline of how Lawrence envisioned the Migration. From there, the students were challenged to make their #Panel 61 with the following assessment. You can see how many of their paragraphs are responses to these questions posed.

What’s really neat is the variety of thought processes that the students depicted in their artwork, and the “buy in” from the students because they voted at the end to choose several for submission to your website. They got really excited about them and wanted to do very well. Before creating, I heard students talking about their ideas and how they see certain legacies of the Migration in their communities, in their schools, etc. It is very meaningful.

#Panel61 submissions from Mrs. O'Brien's African American History class at The Milton Hershey School

#Panel61 submissions from Ms. O’Brien’s African American History class at The Milton Hershey School

Staff Show 2017: Tracy Wingate

In this series, Manager of Visitor and Family Engagement Emily Bray highlights participants in the 2017 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show, on view through September 17, 2017.

Tracy Wingate, The Three of Us

What do you do at The Phillips Collection? Are there any unique or interesting parts about your job that most people might not know about?

I am a Museum Assistant; the interesting aspect of my job would be the public interaction.

Who is your favorite artist in the collection?

I am always amazed by the work of Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin.

What is your favorite space within The Phillips Collection?

I love all galleries in the house.

What would you like people to know about your artwork on view in the 2017 Staff Show (or your work in general)?

My art reflects African American relationships, the bonds that have been established with friends and family.

The 2017 James McLaughlin Memorial Staff Show is on view August 3 through September 17, 2017.