.Exhibit Inspired by Black Movers and Shakers of the ‘Great Migration’

‘A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration’ reverberates at BAMPFA

From the beginning of the 20th century through the 1970s, waves of African Americans left the South in what is known as the “Great Migration.” More than six million people are estimated to have uprooted themselves in search of better, freer lives, taking with them their histories, their traditions and their cultures. This included at least 300,000 who made their way to the Bay Area.

Tens of thousands came to Oakland and Richmond during “the Second Great Migration” of the ’40s-’70s, drawn by the promise of jobs. According to the website OaklandHereAndNow: “by 1970, 35% of Oakland’s population was black—up from 3% in 1940.” Thousands more poured into Richmond, seeking wartime jobs at the Kaiser shipyards.

Both cities saw their cultural scenes transformed. In Oakland, population growth “led to the development of West Oakland’s historic Seventh Street corridor, a centerpiece of black commerce and culture… that included a bustling commercial district lined with black-owned businesses and a vibrant nightlife scene that drew nationally known musicians, such as B.B. King and Sarah Vaughn, and helped foster the city’s legendary jazz scene and the birth of West Coast blues,” notes OaklandHereAndNow.

In Richmond, according to the city of Richmond’s “Black History Corner,” working-class African Americans “used their cultural venues—especially the city’s legendary blues clubs—as staging grounds from which to challenge the racial status quo, with a steadfast determination not to be ‘Jim Crowed’ in the Golden State.”

Now, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive has opened A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration, which features newly commissioned works in various media by 12 acclaimed artists, including Akea Brionne, Mark Bradford, Zoë Charlton, Larry W. Cook, Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates Jr., Allison Janae Hamilton, Leslie Hewitt, Steffani Jemison, Robert Pruitt, Jamea Richmond-Edwards and Carrie Mae Weems.

“This project was brought to us by our executive director, Julie Rodrigues Widholm,” said senior curator Anthony Graham in a phone interview. The exhibition, co-organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art and the Baltimore Museum of Art, has also been shown at the Brooklyn Museum and Los Angeles’ California African American Museum. “The Great Migration altered every aspect and facet of American life,” he said.

“[The exhibition] so resonates with the region we are in, and [showcases] artists who haven’t been seen here before,” he continued. The exhibition includes painting, sculpture, drawing, video, sound and immersive installations.

Although none of the featured artists are current Bay Area residents, two have East Bay connections. Steffani Jemison was born in Berkeley, said Graham. Her video piece, A*ray (2022), follows “Alabama-based actress Lakia Black expressing a range of real and imagined identities through performances and song,” according to BAMPFA materials.

Carrie Mae Weems attended UC Berkeley, said Graham. Weems’ immersive video installation, Leave! Leave Now! (2022), is intensely personal. It “explores the journey of her grandfather Frank Weems, a prominent tenant farmer and union activist who was presumed dead after being attacked by a white mob in 1936, but who survived and made his way to Chicago.” A series of digital prints reflecting on Frank Weems’ northward journey titled The North Star (2022) accompanies the installation, according to museum materials.

Natural disasters, and the effects of an exploited and degraded environment, also played a major role in some African Americans’ decisions to migrate, and this is captured in This Water Runs Deep (2022) by Jamea Richmond-Edwards, a triptych painting accompanied by a soundscape.

Graham emphasized that some of the artworks focus on “those who stayed, and what happened to those who stayed behind.” Others have migrated back, a trend still happening today.

He pointed out Leslie Hewitt’s “three sculptural interventions,” which are spaced throughout the exhibition. Untitled (Slow Drag, Barely Moving, Imperceptible), Untitled (Barely Moving, Imperceptible, Slow Drag), and Untitled (Imperceptible, Slow Drag, Barely Moving) (2022) are a “group of three interrelated abstract sculptures informed by destabilization and migration in relation to time and space,” museum materials state.

“Each sculpture is so informed by the memory of the piece before it,” Graham said, and viewers will experience this as they walk through the rooms containing the exhibition.

Akea Brionne’s An Ode to (You)’all (2022), photographs printed on textiles, creates a “photographic archive transforming our expectations,” Graham said. BAMPFA materials explain that the installation “focuses on the lives of the artist’s great-grandmother and three great-aunts through tapestries that contain familial significance and signals the labor of prior generations who worked to improve the lives and opportunities of their descendants.”

Another fascinating installation is The Double Wide (2022) by Theaster Gates Jr. The artist created a piece based on a double-wide trailer owned by his uncle, which was a candy store by day and a juke joint by night. The work also includes two videos that reference Gates’ childhood, family and friends.

Houston artist Robert Pruitt’s A Song for Travelers (2022) muses on his hometown, particularly the Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards. These served as mainstays for protection and resources for new migrants. The large-scale drawing “reflects archival and contemporary representations of the evolution of his community,” according to materials.

Asked whether it is necessary to have prior knowledge of the Great Migration before viewing the show, Graham said no, noting that materials included throughout it provide explanations, and that the works “tap into all sorts of ideas and associations, and connect to all kinds of experiences.”

BAMPFA will also present a number of public programs during the exhibit. These include a screening on June 13 of Daughters of the Dust, Julie Dash’s film about a multigenerational Black family’s emigration from their home in rural South Carolina; a live performance on July 26 by Oakland-based artist, writer and musician Brontez Purnell and his six-piece band, performing songs by his uncle J. J. Malone, a blues musician who migrated from Alabama to Oakland in the 1960s; and a panel discussion with the exhibition’s organizing curators on Sept. 21.

BAMPFA will also host a screening on June 15 of films by two of the artists featured in the exhibition, Akea Broinne and Jamea Richmond-Edwards. Richmond-Edwards will appear in person at the event, which will include a post-screening talk with Graham.

On select Wednesdays at 12:15pm, Sundays at 2pm and Free First Thursdays at 1pm, UC Berkeley cultural geography and African American literature graduate students will offer tours of A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration. (Check website below to confirm dates.)

On Wednesday, May 12, at noon, curatorial associate Matthew Villar Miranda, who helped organize the exhibition, will lead a tour of it, exploring the themes of refuge, agency, community and memory.

BAMPFA’S museum store carries the two-volume publication created to accompany A Movement in Every Direction. It includes essays by Kiese Laymon, Jessica Lynne, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Dr. Willie J. Wright.

‘A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration,’ BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. 510.642.0808. bampfa.org. Exhibition on view through Sept. 22, 2024.


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