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BAMPFA’s Great Migration Show Brings Nuance to a History Shared by Millions

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A colorful painting hangs on a wall in a gallery
Jamea Richmond-Edwards, 'This Water Runs Deep,' 2022; Mixed media and collage on canvas with sound. (Courtesy the artist and Kravets Wehby Gallery; Photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art)

My mother was six years old when her family migrated west from Tallahassee, Florida in 1954. She was one of approximately six million Black people who moved out of the American South to Western, Northern and Midwestern states in the era known as the Great Migration. My grandfather, a physician who had limited opportunities in the Jim Crow South, moved the family to Porterville, California in the Central Valley. They lived in Palo Alto for five or so years before ultimately settling in Southern California.

Those facts of my family’s migration story were front of mind as I walked through the new exhibition A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through Sept. 22, 2024.

Translating this epic American story of the Great Migration, which has so many facets and truths (and warranted 622 pages from scholar Isabel Wilkerson), into a walkable, visual experience is a feat. A Movement in Every Direction, which was co-organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art and features 12 artists, beautifully showcases how this is a shared history for millions, with very intricate, individual stories.

Charcoal drawing depicting various Black people.
Robert Pruitt, ‘A Song for Travelers,’ 2022; Charcoal, conté, and pastel on paper, mounted onto four aluminum panels. (Courtesy of Adam Reich)

Robert Pruitt’s large-scale charcoal drawing A Song for Travelers (2022) feels emblematic of that intricacy — both in the craft of the piece and the story it tells. Pruitt draws inspiration from his personal archive (a family reunion photo from the 1970s) and the historical archive of his hometown Houston to depict a community of past and present-day figures offering gifts to a traveler.

The longer you look at this piece, the more detail is revealed. Noticing each gift elicits the bright-eyed feel of answering the question “Where’s Waldo?” It’s a feast for the eyes and the spirit, as one can imagine sitting in the traveler’s seat, receiving the support of the ancestors and community members.

Two woven textiles hang on a white wall
Akea Brionne, ‘School Children’ (left) and ‘Porch Sittin’ (right) from the series ‘An Ode To (You)’all,’ 2022; Jacquard tapestry, poly-fil, rhinestones. (Courtesy the artist; Photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art)

The intricacy of stories is also evident in the detailed stitching of Akea Brionne’s tapestries for her installation An Ode to (You)’all (2022), which reflects on Black maternal family structures through the lives of her great-grandmother and great-aunts. The textiles are eye-catching. By transforming old family photographs into jacquard weavings, which she bedazzles with sparkly embellishments, Akea Brionne honors the women who helped her family move north from Mississippi.


Some artists, like Torkwase Dyson, take a more abstract approach to the topic. Dyson, who researched plantation economies and Black liberation theory for her piece Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches) (2022), says the abstract sculpture reflects how Black people “bend space to have life” throughout history. Dyson’s trapezoidal shapes, made of smoky glass, steel and aluminum, indeed invoke a number of musings about space, place and time; I was reminded of sci-fi-like portals to other locations or dimensions.

Trapezoidal figures connected by bent metal bars displayed in the corner of a musuem.
Torkwase Dyson, ‘Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches),’ 2022; Painted steel, glass, painted aluminum, dry-erase marker. (Courtesy the artist and Pace Gallery; Photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art)

The exhibition is anchored by some big names (that were, admittedly, the first to catch my eye when the exhibition was announced). Carrie Mae Weems, Theaster Gates and Mark Bradford all contribute powerful new works. I never miss an opportunity to see Bradford’s work and his mural-sized installation – which duplicates a 1913 “WANTED” ad inviting Black families to join a Jim Crow-free settlement in New Mexico – doesn’t disappoint.

Weems’s video installation, titled Leave! Leave Now! (2022), is simultaneously haunting and gorgeous. In it, Weems narrates what she knows of her grandfather’s journey to Chicago after he was presumed dead following an attack by a white mob in 1936. She also asks questions about the things she doesn’t know: “What was those early years like for you? When did you become a union organizer?”

A black and white digital image floats in front of a slightly open red curtain
Carrie Mae Weems, ‘Leave! Leave Now!,’ 2022; Single-channel digital video (color, sound) installation with mixed media, 25 min. (Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; Photo by Mitro Hood, courtesy of the Mississippi Museum of Art and Baltimore Museum of Art)

Leaving the exhibition, I too felt moved to ask more questions about my family’s migration story. I called my mother, realizing I’d never heard the specific reason they landed in Porterville first. “My father got a resident physician job at Porterville State Hospital [now Porterville Developmental Center] and the job came with a house,” she told me.

I won’t be surprised if other Black Californians are prompted to reflect on how and when their family members first arrived in the state after experiencing A Movement in Every Direction. In fact, they’re invited to, via an interactive component where visitors can record memories about their family’s migration story to join a growing archive. (The program notes that more than 300,000 Black people arrived in the Bay Area during the Great Migration.)

For everyone who visits, the show and archive are a reminder of how strong the Black American spirit is — and how it continuously strives, in both life and in art.

‘A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration’ is on view through Sept. 22, 2024 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (2155 Center St.). Find more details and information here.

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