ART101: The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence

Written by Adam Bryce

Photography courtesy of The Phillips Collection

In an INDEX web series exploring pivotal works of art, we begin with African-American artist Jacob Lawrence.

The year 2020 has been one of learning for a lot of us, whether it be self learnings from the effects of a global pandemic or social learnings by the Black Lives Matter movement. One of mine has been the acknowledgement that, while the world might have progressed in so many ways (the advancement of technology globalisation and social change), we still have a long way to go.

This year has taught us that, while change has occurred, much of it is still surface level. A prime example — while most of us consider ourselves to be anti-racist, the teachings of the Black Lives Matter movement shows that this is not true as a whole. Systemic racism, in most sectors of society (art and fashion included), is undeniable and shows a real lack of advancement over time. Think back over the history of modern art and the significant-name artists in this timeline are very one-dimensional, mainly white and male. Picasso, Warhol, Ruscha, Pollock — you get the picture.

There were, however, exceptions to the rule. At the age of just 23, artist Jacob Lawrence created a series of works entitled The Migrant Series (originally titled The Migration of the Negro). The collection, completed in 1941, chronicles the mass exodus of over one million African-Americans from the rural South to the industrial North between the 1910s and 1920s.

Lured by job opportunities and enabled by a newly accessible railway system, the migrants were also fleeing the racial discrimination and violence propagated by oppressive Jim Crow laws. Sadly, America has shown this year that the oppression that caused this movement hasn’t changed and the racial divide is as evident as ever.

Comprising of 60 pieces, Lawrence presented the series as a single work with each accompanied by a caption denoting the events. The result, an artistic story of the great migration, told frame by frame. The 60 pieces were purchased in 1942, 30 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the remaining 30 by Phillips Collection art museum in Washington, DC.

The Migrant Series is one of the most important works of social realism and, while the paintings tell the story of a time past, they still stir thoughts of familiarity to the pictures we see in news media today.

Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 New Jersey; his parents, a part of the great migration having moved to New Jersey from the South. Their divorce in 1924 resulted in Lawrence and his siblings entering the foster care system, but he moved back to New York when he was 13 to reconnect with his mother in Harlem. It was around this time that Lawrence was introduced to art when his mother enrolled him in a community arts and crafts programme. 

Lawrence was able to create this hugely important series of works with the help of funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a programme initiated by the then-American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Its purpose was to help bolster the economy during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the WPA employed job-seekers (mostly unskilled men) to carry out public works projects, normally construction or similar, but, in this instance, it enabled Lawrence to create the pivotal series.

As we embark on one of the world’s biggest economic downturns, governments discuss similar initiatives to help with the huge spike in unemployment due to the pandemic. Could more programmes like this enable a new group of artists to emerge? Artists who traditionally haven’t been afforded access to contribute to the current art system?

jacob lawrence

Jacob Lawrence/The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation/Artists Rights Society.

jacob lawrence

Jacob Lawrence/The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation/Artists Rights Society.

jacob lawrence

Jacob Lawrence/The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation/Artists Rights Society.

jacob lawrence

Jacob Lawrence/The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation/Artists Rights Society.

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