Main Space

Undoing the Ongoing Bastardization of the Migration of the Negro by Jacob Lawrence (December 2, 2007 - January 20, 2008); exhibiton traveled to Field Museum, Chicago; and Golden Belt, Durham, North Carolina

In the spring of 1941, Jacob Lawrence, then a twenty-four year old Harlem resident, painted The Migration of the Negro, one of the most important artworks of the twentieth century. The sixty paintings tell the story of the great mass departure of African Americans from the rural South to the Northern cities in the decades before World War II.

Lawrence painted the Migration of the Negro in a studio on West 125th Street with no heat or hot water. He considered it a single artwork. Whether it was Lawrence's intention or not, such an epic artwork presented a major challenge to the art world—any gallery or museum that wanted to exhibit it would have to devote a substantial amount of wall space to the work of a then largely unknown, young black artist.

Almost immediately, museums showed a strong interest in the work, albeit with conditions. In the fall of 1941, the Museum of Modern Art offered to buy half the paintings for $1,000 ($33 per painting). Lawrence, who was on his honeymoon in New Orleans, immediately declined the offer, but at the urging of a dealer who had taken an interest in the work, reluctantly agreed to splitting the series in half, provided the two purchasers woudl always make their halves of the artwork available to the other. Several months later, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, purchased the other half.

Since then, The Migrationof the Negro has been exhibited extensively, though usually in a form that is inconsistent with the artist's wishes. For example, Jacob Lawrence retrospectives mounted in 1960, 1974, and 1986 radically misrepresented the work, including only five, fifteen, and ten panels respectively. Lawrence was alive at the time of those exhibitions, though he never challenged the museums on the matter; it wasn't in his character. But he was never happy about it.

Triple Candie is pleased to present The Migration of the Negro, in its entirety, for the first time in Harlem. This exhibition has been organized to coincide with the Whitney Museum of American Art's current exhibition, Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: Selections from the Phillips Collection, which presents seventeen of the artwork's sixty panels.

Historical Note: The exhibition at Triple Candie included 60 full-scale reproductions of Lawrence's original panels from The Migration of the Negro, plus fourteen faux-museum posters that documented various times since 1942 that the work has been misrepresented by museums, and an un-labeled sculpture-like shack/one-room-schoolhouse/railway station/small museum.

Selected photo-documentation >


On View