Anti-freeze, while neon, poison colored, is very sweet on the tongue, and kills hundreds, thousands of animals every year. We made it echo nature’s warning systems, but the taste is far too alluring. This is what I was thinking as we crossed out of Alabama into Mississippi. Mississippi looms large in the Southern Black imaginary. It’s unwieldy, difficult, covered in the colours of nature’s poison, and what I ultimately feared, would be sweet enough to kill.
It’s so beautiful. Mississippi put on her spring dress for us, bright green, with sparkling clear skies. The four of us – myself, Bryn, Emily, and Brandon – all Southern born, arrived in Jackson for the opening of Legacies of the Great Migration at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The promotional materials weren’t…clear. I was nervous. Since what I now call the summer of Black Death , I trust art exhibitions about Black experience about as far as I can throw them.
Press previews are awkward as shit. Before plague, and still, now. When you are at ‘home’, you see the same faces, you get the same vibe at the same spaces – even at big things like Art Week Miami. But we had driven six hours from Atlanta to Jackson, sipped our free gin & tonics, wore bright media badges and I carefully spoke to no one. Several women approached me, thinking I was Anastasia, Jackie, and Ruth (I hope the three of you were located by your parties.) The curators gave a tour thru the galleries for us, which was pointless because it’s always too crowded to see anything.
The names are big. Theaster, Mark, Carrie, Saidiya. The art is big. Mark Bradford’s 500 is gigantic, for absolutely no reason. I do not understand why it needs to take up an entire gallery wall, as if it needed to be more “intense”. The text is in black and orange, the flames of the brands of the enslaved and the torching of Tulsa and the other torched Black settlements across the nation. It would be better if it was even slightly smaller. Mass is a favored tool of mostly male artists to force people to engage with their work, demanding to be interacted with. I don’t know if we need to do that anymore, or if it works the same way now.
Theaster also takes up a massive space in the exhibit, The Double Wide, a shed on wheels being dragged forward by a Black Madonna and child (which was also at the Breonna Taylor exhibit at the Speed in a different form) garishly lit, filled with jars of pickled vegetables. It was irritating. I couldn’t grasp what he was trying to suggest with a tableau that seemed ready made for a magazine spread. Why was this so irritating to me? Why did everything feel so prickly?
I looked thru the press materials and found it. While all the twelve artists have strong Southern roots, with the exception of Larry Cook, no one lives or works in the South at the time of the exhibition opening. [Cook was born in Silver Springs, MD and currently teaches at Howard University.] This is such a bare minimum for me. If someone is putting on an exhibition about Black people in any form, there has to be a living (meaning, alive, and meaning, living and working) Southern person in it. It feels so invasive and unreal to be presented with your own miserable life by someone who last called this place home two generations ago.
With all of this being said, there are shocking surprises. Torkwase Dyson’s Way Over There Inside of Me (A Festival of Inches) was so sinister, so baleful, that I needed to maintain my distance but also kept returning to it, like a dog to vomit. Made of different shades of black glass, it seemed to never intersect, and with sharp, pointed lines that felt like surgical incisions, rising to a peak, a deformed obelisk that I did not feel safe turning my back on. It desperately called out to have more space, it’s own room, and perhaps it’s wise it didn’t. I felt that if left to it’s own devices, some eldritch horror would seethe from it. Is this what Torkwase felt about Mississippi? I understood that, if so.
Akea Brionne, the youngest artist to participate, showed three jacquard portraits (you can read her interview with Bryn here) and other Black family life images. The weight of the blankets, the shimmery aspects of the fabric, were luxurious and lush to be almost absurd. No one in Louisiana would ever need something so heavy, which of course, made me smile. That was the point, after all. I thought back to all these grand houses I had been to, even not that grand, to see these treasures the rich had – oil portraits of their ancestors, china with their special wedding designs or whatever. Black people rarely have such ancestral treasures, and I thought about all my childhood memories that were just swept away in one giant moment in 2005. I look forward to seeing more work from her in the future, even if it doesn’t come from New Orleans. I understand that too. New Orleans is a hard woman to love, and a harder woman to leave.
Pacing on the street in front of the brightly colored house in West Jackson where we staid, I turned several things over in my mind. If the legacy of the Great Migration was the riches of St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Harlem, what was this exhibit doing here? On top of that, what about the great migration that happened right along with the exodus north, but swelled the cities of Houston, Atlanta, Birmingham? According to the critical reader from the exhibition, the number of Black people returning to the South has outstripped the number of Black people leaving, every year, since 1985. The largest movement of a single group of people since the great migration ended in the 1960s was the exhausted peoples fleeing Hurricane Katrina, of which I am a number. Would it make more sense for this exhibition to end in Mississippi instead of begin there?
The exhibition left me feeling pernicious, and I think that is its greatest success. As a Southerner, I’m used to seeing our stories and legacies and heritage twisted and corrupted to fit this narrative or that. I was impressed with the force that the exhibition was mounted. For so long, Mississippi, and the people who love and live and make work there, have been used as vectors for the rest of the country to pour their fear and hatred into. Legacies felt like Mississippi striking back, striking out, trying something else. That promise, of something just right out of the corner of your eye, the dare, has stuck with me.
Since the ongoing water difficulties in Jackson have morphed into a full blown crisis – the capital of an American state cannot drink it’s own water – I’ve been revisiting Cecil Howell’s artist project about the 2020 legal battle for a water table that stretches underneath Mississippi and Tennessee. The fight over water will continue to define human movement, human migration and human struggles, and will define our region, with Mississippi at the heart of it all.
At the end of the project, Cecil quotes John Wesley Powell, a nineteenth century geologist and geographer, who said;
A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration will open at the Baltimore Museum of Art on October 30, 2022, and will run thru January 29, 2023.