Opened in 1921 by Founder Duncan Phillips, Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection is America’s oldest museum of modern art, and during our visit we toured the museum’s extensive collection that is still mostly housed in its founder’s 1897 Georgian Revival home. What makes The Now so special for the museum is that its walls are now the temporary home of African-American artist Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series. Told through vivid patterns and brilliant colors, Lawrence’s series is the first to narrate the 20th-century exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North. The Phillips Collection only owns the odd numbers of Lawrence’s series, but for the first time in years the entire 60-panel series is on view at the museum until October 26, 2008.
Pictured above with his favorite piece in the collection is Chris Celauro, the Phillips Collection’s Jacob Lawrence Education Project Coordinator, who gives new meaning to “taking your work home with you.” Chris says that hanging over his bed is a print of Lawrence’s painting No. 57, an image of an African-American woman hunched hard at work, whose description reads ‘The female workers were the last to arrive north’.
For Chris: “The figure in the painting represents a universal symbol of strength. As the caption depicts, African-American women were the last to leave the South during the Great Migration. Those who stayed in the South needed courage, perseverance, and strength to stay behind and survive the violence, discrimination, segregation, and Jim Crow Laws. For me, this panel stands as symbol for all people who are facing adversity to never give up and stand strong in the search for a better life.” Panel No. 57 is a reminder of strength with which Chris begins each day.
Contributing to oral history, the Phillips Collection brought StoryCorps to Washington to gather the migration stories of the museum’s patrons and employees. During our weekend, graduate student and museum volunteer Taye Akinola shared his own migration story, describing his life as a deaf person and his frightening move alone from Houston, Texas to Washington, D.C. to StoryCorps facilitator Kate Brown. Taye remembers his migration as one that pushed him to make the first adult decision of his life: Despite his parents’ objections, Taye moved away from home to pursue higher education at Gallaudet University, a school whose programs cater to the deaf and hard of hearing. Although the move was a difficult one for Taye without his parents’ support, he is thankful for the growth that he and even his parents have seen in him as a person. Taye is now a graduate student at Gallaudet with a concentration in deaf studies, and he hopes to make the art world a bit more inclusive of the deaf, a population that primarily operates visually.