Art about Migration

Art about Migration

Migration is central to human experience. And by migration, I mean people moving from
one place to another with the intention of settling either temporarily or for good. This
is happening in our world right now, as we’re witnessing the highest levels of human movement
on record. And it’s been happening since homo sapiens first traveled out of Africa
around 60 to 70,000 years ago. People move for many different reasons, whether its voluntary
or forced, or due war, persecution, discrimination, environmental forces, economic forces, or
lack of opportunity. Whether or not movement has defined your human
experience, you carry around evidence of the migration of your ancestors in your DNA. And
you are wherever you are in part because of migration. Our world today is so different than the one
our ancestors navigated, but the complex phenomenon of migration is something that links us and
still affects us all. This is the first of five videos that focuses
on an aspect of life today, and looks back to see how people from the past have made
objects and artworks that speak to it in some way, and tell us something about their experience. This is art about migration. I don’t know how I thought of this one first,
but Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series is a succession of sixty paintings, made of tempera
on board and measuring 12 by 18 inches each. The panels have captions that help tell the
story of what in US history is called the “Great Migration,” or that time starting
in the nineteen teens and continuing for decades, when more than 6 million African Americans
left the mostly rural South and moved to the mostly urban North. In 1910, the country’s
largest black populations were in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and by 1970 the
country’s largest black populations were in New York, Illinois, and California. This giant exodus is now described in sweeping
terms and totalizing statistics, but Lawrence’s series makes this history personal and real.
It begins in a train station with a mass of people on the move, to Chicago, New York,
and St. Louis, three of the major cities that attracted African Americans who were seeking
out work, security, better access to education, and the freedom to vote. Many were also escaping
the harsh conditions of the south, and fewer farming jobs due to flooding and boll weevil
infestation. Good opportunities were few, and racism extreme. Lynchings were very much
a part of life. And often had a hand in families’ deliberations over whether and when to leave. Those leaving the South were also responding
to the need for labor in the north–jobs available because of those away fighting in World War
I, and an increased demand for American goods at home and abroad. Labor agents from the
North came South to recruit workers, providing train tickets whose cost had to be worked
off upon arrival. The decision to leave wasn’t easy, and neither was the reality of what
was faced once they reached their destinations. Some of the housing was better, and some was
worse, overcrowded tenement houses that lead to a higher incidence of tuberculosis. Working
conditions weren’t great either; many learned only upon arrival that they’d been brought
in as strikebreakers and suffered retaliation. And there was still tremendous discrimination,
open hostility from Northerners of many skin colors, as well as riots in protest to their
arrival in some neighborhoods. Migrants built strong communities nevertheless, often centered
around the church, and exercised their rights to vote and access education. The series was painted in 1940 and 1941 by
23 year-old Jacob Lawrence, whose parents were originally from the South and were very
much part of this migration. After moving around the northeast, Lawrence and his family
arrived in Harlem in 1930, where he found a community of mentors who fostered his development
as an artist, and ignited his interest in black history. He got a job with the Federal
Art Project, chronicled the history of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, and
illustrated the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman. In 1940, Lawrence received a $1500
grant to create our series in question, allowing him to rent a studio, travel to the south
for the first time with his wife, painter Gwendolyn Knight, and conduct research through
written and oral accounts. But it was also a history that he had lived, and that was
very much alive around him. Lawrence worked on all 60 panels at once,
laying down flat areas of color one by one to keep them consistent across the series.
Knight prepared the panels and helped write the captions that go along with each image.
The captions contain the repetition of certain words that—with the repetition of colors
and forms—contribute to the feeling of syncopation or rhythm in the work. A sense of momentum
permeates the series. Providing us glimpses into individual moments and scenes of this
vast experience of millions of people. It comes together to form a cohesive and yet
also intimate story, not a historical event firmly rooted in the past, but something still
very much underway. The series ends where it begins, at a train
station, with the words “And the migrants kept coming.” And they did, until around
1970, when black populations began to grow again in metropolitan areas of the South.
But Lawrence’s series has lived on, continuing to tell the relevant tale of individuals deciding
to take huge leaps of faith, to find out whether their lives might be better off lived somewhere
else. Others who took enormous leaps of faith were
those who set out in long-distance seafaring canoes to populate an enormous span of islands
in the Pacific Ocean some 3500 to 4000 years ago. We can trace their journey through fragments
of the distinctive terracotta pottery they left behind. Archeologists began referring to the people
who created this pottery as “Lapita” in 1952, after mishearing the indigenous Kanak
community’s word for the site in New Caledonia where fragments had been found. The “potsherds”
found there—that’s the archeological term for broken pieces of ceramics– were eventually
dated to 800 BCE. By linking stylistically- related sherds in more than 200 sites that
span over 4,000 kilometers, archeologists began to visualize this incredible movement
of the Lapita people. Through the dating of these fragments unearthed in stratigraphic
layers, we can chart the departure of the Lapita from Taiwan around 2000 BCE. And see
that they made it to the Bismarck Archipelago by around 1400 BCE. And that they then spread
out to areas as distant as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by about 850 BCE. That’s a long way
to go! The Lapita were clearly master navigators
and seafarers, but they also made and decorated their pottery in a particular way. They blended
reddish-brown clay with sand, and shaped the vessels by hand. The pieces were decorated
with comb-like stamps that pierced the surface of the wet clay and formed motifs and patterns
that range from simple to complex. A paste of white coral lime was applied to make the
decoration more apparent, and the pots were placed in open fires to harden. They made
mostly bowls and flat-bottomed vessels, which they used for serving and storing food. And
we know from sherds found in the Mussau islands, where there is very little naturally occurring
clay, that the Lapita either took their pots with them as they traveled, or brought in
materials from other places. But the amazing thing is that while there
is plenty of variation in shape and size and complexity, what links these potsherds is
a discernible and coherent system of patterning. Inspired by linguistic analysis, archaeologists
have been able to categorize the design elements of Lapita pottery, and parse a system or “grammar”
that they all follow. As the Lapita moved across the Pacific ocean, the design system
changed incrementally but still adhered to the rules of the system, whether it was a
simple decoration, or an intricate pattern with an occasional face or figure. The other really cool thing is that some of
this design system can be seen in more recent barkcloth decorations, like this one from
the Lau Islands in Fiji that dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. And you can
also see it in pottery that is still made in this way by descendants of the Lapita people
in Fiji and other areas of Polynesia. You can even detect similar patterning in tattooing
in the area, both historically and today. In fact, the same toothy stamps that were
used to decorate Lapita pottery may have been the same tools used to make tattoos. While there’s a tremendous amount we do
not know about the culture that created this pottery, through these fragments we have been
able to begin to understand something of how this great sea of islands became populated.
We can tell that the farther east the Lapita headed, the more simple the patterning of
their pottery became. And that they encountered and mixed with numerous other cultures along
the way. Through these remnants, we can appreciate the miraculousness of the journeys undertaken
by the ancestors of those who are living in the central Pacific today. Next we’ll focus on the migration story
of the Mexica people from their homeland of Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico. We know about
this story through a variety of sources that combine history and myth, one of the most
central of which is the Tira de la Peregrinación, which translates to “The Pilgrimage Strip.”
It’s a book made from one long sheet of fig bark accordion-folded into 21 ½ pages,
created at some point between 1530 and 1541, just about ten years after the Spanish conquest
of Mexico. It comes from a long tradition of book-making in Mexica culture that began
thousands of years before Europeans invaded, and well before the Mexica began to be referred
to as “Aztecs” in the early 19th Century. Typically made from deer hides, cloth, or
a variety of plant-based papers, these books–or codices as they’re also called–consist
primarily of images and pictograms that form a kind of picture-writing. This particular book is often called the Boturini
Codex, named after the Italian collector who owned it in the 18th Century, and its images
are rendered in black ink, not colored as was customary. The book is unfinished, likely
intended to have been longer and brightly painted. And while it was created in the 16th
Century, the migration it illustrates is one that began in the 12th Century, when a relatively
small community of Mexica left Aztlán, a place that may or may not have been real.
It’s described as being located on a lake, and is thought to be somewhere in present-day
northern Mexico or the southwestern United States. The Mexica left at the urging of their
patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, whom we can see carried on the back of a figure embarking
on this journey to establish a new settlement. Through the book, we follow the footprints
of the Mexica as they travel, looking for the sign of an eagle on a cactus, which their
deity told them would be the signal to settle. The story unfolds sequentially, in a combination
of images and glyphs that identify general types of places as well as particular place
names. For example, this place glyph identifies Chapultepec, the same “Grasshopper Hill”
you can still visit today on the western edge of Mexico City. Later written accounts indicate that the travelers
witnessed this sign in 1325 on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where they established
their capital city of Tenochtitlan. Through warfare they went on to conquer most of what
is now Central and Southern Mexico, and formed the Triple Alliance with the lords of Texcoco
and Tlacopan to strengthen their power. The city developed into a bustling metropolis
and was a marvel of engineering, with sophisticated causeways linking islands, and aqueducts bringing
in fresh water. The Mexica were successful traders, importing and exporting a wide array
of goods, and received valuable materials as tribute from conquered areas. They were
accomplished artists, creating monumental stone sculptures, as well as mosaics, featherworks,
and of course illustrated manuscripts. When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish army arrived
in 1519, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, although it would fall
to the Spanish in only a few years. This book charts a journey that is mytho-historical,
combining aspects of mythology with historical components. The Mexica did settle in Tenochtitlan
and create an enormously powerful empire, and this book is an important chronicle of
that history, as told by the descendents of those who undertook the journey. The Spanish
burned or otherwise destroyed a vast amount of Mexica cultural heritage, and we rely on
codices like this one to keep this heritage alive. As well as, of course, the spectacular
remains of Tenochtitlan, parts of which like the Templo Mayor, have been excavated and
are on view in the heart of present day Mexico City. And it’s worth noting that this origin
story is clearly referenced in the Mexican flag, at whose center sits an eagle perched
atop a cactus. The final work we’ll explore is also a book,
created only a few decades later, but in an entirely different part of the world. And
the story this one tells is less literally about the migration of people, and more about
the movement of traditions and ideas. The Akbarnama was commissioned by none other
than Akbar, the third emperor of the Mughal dynasty, a Muslim empire established in India
in the early sixteenth century. Translating to “the Chronicle” or “Book of Akbar,”
it tells the story of his life in three volumes composed of text and miniature paintings. Akbar was born in 1543 in Pakistan and inherited
the Mughal territories at the tender age of thirteen, after the sudden death of his father,
Humayun. After living in exile in Iran for a number of years, Humayun had become a full
convert to the language, art and cultural traditions of Persia. And when he returned
to power he brought these ideas back with him to India, and established a workshop of
miniature painters lead by two master artists from Iran. Akbar took great interest in the
workshop and expanded it, commissioning numerous manuscripts including the Akbarnama, which
was begun in 1569 and completed in the 1590s. The book was written by Akbar’s court historian
and illustrated by artists from Persia as well as many regions of India, both Muslim
and Hindu. The work they created was a remarkable and highly distinctive blend of approaches
and styles, blending indigenous Indian techniques, with Persian as well as European traditions.
They opted for the vertical format common to Persian miniature painting, and often posed
figures in standard Persian gestures and poses. But the artists also felt free to veer from
that style, incorporating larger scale figures and the vibrant, saturated colors typical
of the Indian tradition. The artists also worked in a greater illusion of depth, influenced
by artworks and texts from Europe brought by Jesuit missionaries to Akbar’s court. The narrative of Akbar’s life is filled
with great action and intrigue, but it is this glorious movement of styles and techniques
that is our migration of focus. The diverse range of artists who collaborated on this
work cherished old approaches, but also embraced the new, integrating multiple traditions into
the fresh and cosmopolitan style that characterizes Mughal art. They were able to do this under
the patronage of a ruler who encouraged religious and cultural tolerance, promoted through policies
as well as art. Not just painting but also literature, music, and architecture. Akbar
scheduled regular viewings of the work as it was being created, and gave its makers
an exceptional degree of freedom to experiment. And by the time of his death, the imperial
library he had built contained more than 24,000 volumes. These are only four of a great many artworks
and objects that tell stories about the movement of people and ideas. There are numerous works
being made now, and that have been made in the recent past, that share aspects of migration
experiences. Like Doris Salcedo’s tremendous crack in the floor of the Tate Modern, titled
Shibboleth. It was made to represent the immigrant experience in Europe, and the lines that separate
those who belong from those who do not. And Ai Weiwei’s 2017 film Human Flow, which
takes you through 23 countries in the course of a year, and gives direct views into the
scale as well as the individual faces of the contemporary global refugee crisis. What are the works that stand out to you as
remarkable chronicles of migration, either from today or from the past? Let’s talk
about them in the comments, and also discuss how and whether these objects from art history
might shed light on the issues that surround us today. This episode was made in partnership with
Smarthistory, an outstanding resource for anyone curious about art and cultural objects
from around the world. Their videos and website bring together the expertise of more than
300 art historians, archaeologists, and curators, and cover a huge range of topics and cultures
from prehistory to today. Subscribe to their YouTube channel, and visit
to learn more about the artworks and histories discussed in this video, and many, many more.

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5 Replies to “Art about Migration”

  1. Jacob Lawrence had provided a remarkable documentation and account on racism and migration in the U.S. They are accounts that represent the human experience anywhere. He is not just a Harlem Renaissance artist, he is a world artist. His art represents me, and it represents all of us.

  2. Thank you for the video. There is one Collection of Artwork that may interest you as well. Its the 2501 clay sculptures of Alejandro Santiago an Mexican artist from Oaxaca. The work is called 2501 Migrantes.
    This is a Documentary about the path to these 2501 sculptures

  3. And yet we still build walls and guard imaginary borders to keep the less fortunate outside and away from the resources that we claim are our birth right.

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