Jacob Lawrence’s epic 60-panel The Migration Series began as a series of captions— of facts — related to the African-American migration experience from the South to the North.
“The captions are very matter-of-fact — they remind me, almost, of the facts that you’d read in a history book,” says Patricia Junker, Seattle Art Museum’s curator of American Art, “but the pictures then show you what the facts can’t possibly tell.”
What was, in 1941, the story of African Americans moving from the South to the North, we can now see is a universal story and is a particularly timely story.
Lawrence was employed by The Federal Art Project — well-known for commissioning large-scale murals of American life and work — in 1941. His initial vision was for Migration to be a single, large work, but the 22-year-old Lawrence was told that he lacked experience in murals. And so he began his series by working on all 60 panels simultaneously and in the same studio, under the same light.
Narrated through captions, the story progresses panel-by-panel, with matching colors and a vision to mount the paintings linearly, as if the viewer is traveling past a vast story. Each panel has a number and a caption that sets the scene.
For most of its 76 years, The Migration Series has been split into two fragmented collections; The Museum of Modern Art in New York has the even-numbered panels, and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. has the odd-numbered panels. But from January 21 through April 23 at the Seattle Art Museum, patrons can see all 60 panels in their entirety as Jacob Lawrence intended.
The series tells the story of The Great Migration, the exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in the decades between the two world wars. Lawrence was born in New Jersey, but considered himself “a child of the Great Migration” because the community he was a part of was comprised of many individuals that had migrated from the South.
“In this exhibition, he’s not doing a historical narrative, he’s doing what he saw out his windows and what he experienced in the street,” says Barbara Earl Thomas, an art historian and visual artist based in Seattle. Thomas got to know Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington in the 1970s, where Lawrence was a professor for 15 years.
Thomas herself could be considered a child of The Second Great Migration, the wave of African Americans that moved from the South to the North and West after WWII.
“My grandfather came here to work in the shipyards. He came so he could own his own home, and that was not something that you could do very readily if you were not of a certain class in the South,” Thomas explains. “Here in Seattle and in Washington, you have whole groups of people who were a part of The Second Great Migration.”
When taking in The Migration Series, you’ll find that the narrative is easy to follow — in contrast to many modern works of art, which tend toward the enigmatic. It reads almost like a graphic novel.
“The series is text and pictures. It’s not text that was arbitrarily assigned to the pictures after the fact,” says Junker.
Junker points to the continued relevance of the subject matter in these times of renewed turmoil over immigration.
“What was, in 1941, the story of African Americans moving from the South to the North, we can now see is a universal story and is a particularly timely story. What does migration look like? Jacob Lawrence shows us that.”
David is a documentary and video producer based in Seattle. He studied documentary filmmaking at Fairhaven College at Western Washington University and has had his work featured in The National Journal, The Stranger, We and the Color and the National Science Foundation. Through his freelance business, he produces for the Seattle Storm, Allrecipes.com, Amazon.com, Glassybaby, the W Hotel Seattle, Simon & Schuster and others.More stories by David Albright