Whoever remarked that Mississippi is “America, only worse” might amend that quip if they’d been to Jackson with me recently—particularly if they’d gone from the city’s stupendously successful new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum to the Mississippi Museum of Art’s exhibition Picturing Mississippi. What the Civil Rights Museum does so vividly for the twentieth century’s dramatic decades of protest is deepened at the MMA with approximately 175 works of art that bring the state’s pictorial past to the current moment and by doing so indicate a way forward—and not just for the arts. This brilliant gathering of images and objects from the eighteenth century to the present is arranged with a certain deadpan ease that gives didacticism a good name: the galleries of historical material are punctuated with the work of contemporary artists who have met the high cost of history with spirited, imaginative work. Picturing Mississippi has a subtitle—Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise. They aren’t just blowing smoke with that last bit of alliteration.
The Mississippi Museum of Art is not a state museum. From its beginnings in 1911 as the Mississippi Art Association, it has always had a high degree of local engagement combined with cosmopolitan taste. Both come into play in the works chosen and the way they are presented in Picturing Mississippi. I was interested to meet the exhibition’s chief curator, Jochen Wierich, and find that he was born and raised in Germany, before coming here to explore and celebrate our art. Where would we be, I found myself wondering, without people like Wierich, who often seem to know us better and like us more than we like ourselves? I’m sure he is here because the museum’s savvy director, Betsy Bradley, knows the answer to that question.
There has been a lot of inventive programming surrounding the exhibition— films, symposiums, music—much of it under the banner of CAPE, the museum’s Center for Art and Public Exchange. CAPE’s director, Julian Rankin, seems improbably young to have an important book forthcoming on Ed Scott Jr., a sharecropper’s son who became a Mississippi entrepreneur, but there are plenty of other surprises down here. The exhibition ends with one of them: a room that is not part of the show but makes a stunning coda. Thomas Sayre’s 2016 White Gold, a huge installation of earth-cast sculptures and two panoramas—forty feet and fifty-six feet long—that are almost frightening in their oppressive evocation of King Cotton and the earth it comes from. White Gold originated at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bringing it here must have been a significant undertaking—another example of the energy and courage you don’t often find in many wealthier museums.
To assemble Picturing Mississippi, the organizers added to the museum’s holdings by borrowing from no fewer than seventy-one museums, galleries, and private collections. What, exactly, were they after? My guess is that they wanted to show not only what the past looked like but how it looks to us today, and to go from there to what our contemporary gaze may hold for the future. To begin near the beginning—and the show is chronological up to a point—one gallery offers early depictions of Natchez, the antebellum South’s showplace, with all its contradictions subtly in place: portraits of prosperous citizens, a fascinating Natchez landscape by John James Audubon (Fig. 1), an engraving after a drawing by Henry Inman of the enslaved prince Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, and one of a female slave attributed to James Reid Lambdin (Fig. 2), more familiar as a painter of presidential portraits. There is also something else: Noah Saterstrom’s 2016 Road to Shubuta, an ironic panorama of another town with a grisly racial past by a contemporary artist who grew up in Natchez (Fig. 3).
Elsewhere, just as we are absorbing the story of the land and its first inhabitants as depicted by George Catlin (Fig. 6) and others, we encounter the portrait of a bewigged foreign fat cat in splendid silk and satin (Fig. 4). What is he doing here? The answer to that question demonstrates the lengths to which the curatorial team has gone to tell this story. The 1727 portrait by Willem Verelst depicts John Law, a Scottish banker who encouraged European investors to speculate on the wealth to be gleaned from the land. That speculation eventually turned territory into property, setting the stage for the removal of the tribes. This portrait, unknown until the 1970s, and acquired by the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Missouri, languished until it could have this moment in the visual history of Mississippi.
At the other end of history in this gallery we find Mississippi River Bank, a work from Benny Andrews’s 2005 Trail of Tears series (Fig. 12). His tribal figures don’t look so much poised for exile as teetering on the edge of extinction. History lives . . . but they don’t need to say that here.
The treatment of the Confederacy and the Civil War is no less pungent. For the most part, the war is delivered as it was at the time by illustrations from Northern artists such as Winslow Homer for Harper’s Weekly and other publications (see Fig. 5). The one triumphant rebel yell comes from William D. Washington’s painting of Stonewall Jackson’s arrival in Winchester, Virginia. But there is something else going on as well: numerous depictions of the slave trade and of slavery throughout the exhibition have kept the focus both implicitly and explicitly on the state’s half million enslaved souls; the postwar note of Lost Cause galantry you might have expected is not sounded.
Instead, reflection on the aftermath of the Civil War comes from our contemporary Kara Walker. Freedom: A Fable (Fig. 7), her bound book with five laser-cut pop-up silhouettes, tells the story of an emancipated slave who found that her freedom was illusory. Like other contemporary works in the exhibition, Walker’s is so vigorous and so original that its very existence pushes us beyond the bleakness of its message. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has implored artists to do, it turns protest into production.
And so it goes until we get to the Depression and the indelible WPA and Farm Security Administration photographs of the downtrodden by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange (Fig. 10), Ben Shahn, and others. To these the museum has added photographs by Eudora Welty, the Jackson novelist and short story writer who was on assignment for… Eudora Welty. Her camera captures people and scenes with a broader sense of Mississippi life than the work of the great photographers down there on a visit. I wish the museum had been able to include one more of her shots: the one that appears on the cover of her book Eudora Welty: Photographs (Fig. 13). It speaks so eloquently of a certain unexpected optimism, a theme the exhibition is pursuing.
There is much more—from the civil rights movement to the present day, explored in images both historic and contemporary. Bruce Davidson’s photographs of the Freedom Riders are here and so is Sam Gilliam’s 1970 draped canvas, Red April, a chilling evocation of the blood of Martin Luther King Jr. McArthur Binion’s 2015 DNA—a coded work in which the artist’s Mississippi birth certificate, identifying him as “colored,” is covered in intricate grids of oil stick—hangs not that far from a much earlier work, a 1790–1791 painting of the transatlantic slave trade.
And then there is Our New Day Begun (Fig. 11), one of Gwendolyn Magee’s extraordinary quilts, its title taken from a line in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the unofficial African-American anthem and the inspiration for Magee’s twelve-quilt series of that name. Unlike other quilts in the series, which depict the darker material of chain gangs and lynchings, Our New Day bursts forth in color, leaving no doubt that there is a road ahead. It is the last piece in the exhibition.
And that brings us to Now: The Call and Look of Freedom at the Tougaloo College Art Gallery, some ten miles north of Jackson. The eighteen works on view are drawn in part from the MMA, in part from Tougaloo’s impressive collection, plus four that were borrowed by the exhibition’s curator, La Tanya Autry, who is also a curator at MMA. I first became aware of Autry when I went to see her exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery of Lee Friedlander’s little-known photographs of the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. I was impressed then by her insistence that freedom must be more than protest, that it needs to be represented by works of art that show what it can look like in ordinary life. That is, in part, the Now in this exhibition’s title: people going about their business, doing ordinary things. So this small but important gathering of works rings the freedom bell with art by Elizabeth Catlett (Fig. 8), Romare Bearden, and Betye Saar, and with James Perry Walker’s image of four kids posing for a family photograph (Fig. 9).
What Autry and the Mississippi Museum of Art do next is something we should all look forward to.
Picturing Mississippi, 1817–2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise is on view at the Mississippi Museum of Art through July 8.
Now: The Call and Look of Freedom is on view at the Tougaloo College Art Gallery through May 15.
Jackson: Five dining recommendations
If you go to Jackson to visit its three great museums—and you should—there are good places to stay and good things to eat. I went to Bully’s, a tiny soul food spot where they treat you like family. It was February 28 and the place was packed at lunchtime. As I waited for my ribs and blackeyed peas, the crowd stood to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and I realized it was the last day of Black History Month. – E.P.
Betsy Bradley, Director, Mississippi Museum of Art
I love taking guests to Parlor Market in downtown Jackson. The warm atmosphere and open kitchen break down all kinds of barriers between customers
and kitchen staff. Chaz Lindsay, the chef, creates amazing homemade pastas that send one’s imagination straight to Italy. And the restaurant is co-owned by a brilliant chef who has four great restaurants throughout the city. You can’t go wrong in one of Derek Emerson’s Jackson eateries.
Jochen Wierich, Interim Chief Curator
There are two hotels downtown that serve great food. When I first came to visit Jackson, I always stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn (also known by its old name: the King Edward Hotel) and often ate at the restaurant. I would usually start off with a cup of gumbo, which is excellent, and then order a seafood dish. I liked their grilled shrimp with some grits on the side, and I very much enjoyed the red fish plate. I also ate at the bar and treated myself to a fantastic margarita. The other restaurant I like is Estelle’s inside the Westin hotel. They serve delicious salads.
La Tanya Autry, Curator of Art and Civil Rights
I happen to love La Brioche’s turkey with brie and preserves on a baguette with the mixed greens side. I know that doesn’t match a lot of people’s idea of Southern cuisine, but when I was an undergraduate, I studied in the south of France. There are all kinds of southern. La Brioche’s sandwich
reminds me of bon temps in Avignon!
Julian Rankin, Managing Director, Center for Art & Public Exchange
For an immersive Mississippi culinary experience, I tell pilgrims to visit Hal and Mal’s, a downtown Jackson anchor. The building is a historical
document, the Southern and Creole recipes are handed down through the generations, and the musical history caulks the brick. One of the titular founding brothers is Mississippi Arts Commission Executive Director Malcolm White, who has long fueled arts and music in the state.