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Art

The cultural significance of Jacob Lawrence's 'Migration Series'

In terms of Black artists, you don’t get much more significant than Jacob Lawrence. One of the most lauded painters of the modern era, his portrayal of modern African-American history and contemporary life was groundbreaking and helped spread the word of the plight and experiences of African-Americans to places never thought possible. He described his work as “dynamic cubism”, and used the vibrant colours and figures of Harlem, New York, as his primary influences. 

Using blacks and browns juxtaposed with bright colours, he brought the African-American condition to life, capturing the many idiosyncrasies of the community that had been used and abused for so long. Although he enjoyed a long and stellar career, the narrative brought to life in his 60-panel collection, The Migration Series, is rightly hailed as his masterpiece. 

Remarkably, Lawrence was only 23 when he shot to national fame in 1941, after The Migration Series caught the eye of all the most influential people in the American art world. It was published in 1941 and was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), an ambitious public works project that formed a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

The series focused on the Great Migration of African Americans from their homes in the rural south to the urban north. A huge point in the history of the African-Americans, and indeed for America, Lawrence documented it in a way that had never been done before. 

He managed to capture every aspect of this monumental period and, through his expert use of colour, conveyed mundanity, excitement and everything in between. Beginning in 1916, the first part of the migration ran through to 1930 and was thought to have involved around 1.6 million people, all of whom were escaping the hells they had faced in the south. 

Lawrence moved to Harlem when he was 13 years old in 1930, having lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania before. His mother was born in Virginia and his father in South Carolina, so the experiences of African-Americans in the south and of the Great Migration he knew first-hand. This close connection to the African-American diaspora would fill his paintings with a density that eclipsed whatever his white counterparts were doing at the time. 

Lawrence conceived the series as a single work rather than individual paintings. He worked on all of them at the same time, giving them the unified feel we know and love today. This also kept the use of colours uniform between the panels, linking them all brightly. 

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Famously, he wrote sentence-long captions for each of the 60 panels, explaining each part of the Great Migration. When viewed as a whole, the series links as one large tale. Together the images and words tell Lawrence’s account of the Great Migration, and it is nothing short of astonishing. 

It’s not just the juxtaposition in colours that characterises the Migration Series. The north and south are shown in different lights. The overarching theme is that both were problematic but that the north was better. Life in the south is shown to have been what it was, horrific. There’s poor wages, the economic hardship brought on by boll weevil feeding on cotton, and an overall system rigged against African-Americans. 

On the other hand, the north offered better wages, with some concessions on human rights, but this came at a price. Cities were crowded, meaning that communities were more at risk of exposure to diseases such as tuberculosis. 

The final panel states that the migration continues. With the reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s and the continued oppression of Jim Crow in the south, migrants continued to move north in the 1950s and ’60s, with the diaspora finishing in 1970. Interestingly, Lawrence lived until the year 2000, but never returned to the Migration Series. I wonder if he meant anything by that. 

The series was first exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village, New York, which made Lawrence the first African-American artist to be represented by a New York gallery. That wasn’t all, though. Selections from the series were featured in a 1941 issue of Fortune. After the great success of the Migration Series, Lawrence would become one of the most celebrated artists in America. His 1947 painting The Builders still hangs in the White House. An incredible feat for a man whose profession was always meant to have been determined by his skin colour. 

The series was purchased jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. His subsequent works are spread across America from the East Coast to the West. Without his marvellous work on the Migration Series, it is likely that artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley would not have been taken so seriously. 

Get more information on the Migration Series below.