Some journeys begin on foot, with a frightened glance over the shoulder and a rush into the night. But Larry W. Cook Jr.’s great migration began with the click of his camera lens.
In 2019, during a single devastating year, the 36-year-old photographer and assistant professor at Howard University lost two people he loved dearly: the single mother who had raised him, and his younger brother and best friend. So Cook Jr. picked up his camera and went in search of the only person still living from his birth family — his father, Larry W. Cook Sr., who had been absent from his sons’ lives for most of their childhoods.
“My younger brother, Kevin, and I would see him maybe once or twice a year,” said Cook Jr., who lives in Laurel. “I had a lot of anger inside, to the point where I built a wall to protect myself.”
As Cook Jr. prepared his artwork for “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration,” the new group show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, the trauma inflicted on five generations of his male ancestors over nearly two centuries gradually came into focus.
Through photographs and letters, Cook Jr. traces how the social forces compelling some 6 million Americans to leave their homes in the South to resettle in northern cities, a historical period known as the Great Migration, conspired — and failed — to tear apart one Black family.
“I made a promise that I would let go of the past,” Cook Jr. writes in a letter to his father that is part of the exhibit. “And maybe together we can help each other heal.”
Cook Jr. is one of 12 artists who received commissions to create photographs, paintings, film and sculptures that explore the impact of the diaspora, which occurred between 1915 and 1970. In some cases, entire families left their homes in the South and traveled together. But often just one family member left, usually a man who had been threatened with racial violence, fleeing for his life and leaving his wife and children behind. These forced abandonments caused rifts in families that took generations to heal.
The exhibit, organized by the BMA and the Mississippi Museum of Art, is generating something of a stir, largely because it features brand-new artworks by three very big names: painter Mark Bradford, filmmaker Carrie Mae Weems and installation artist Theaster Gates.
After an attention-grabbing April debut in Mississippi, the exhibit is expected to draw 30,000 visitors during the show’s three-month stay in Baltimore, said Asma Naeem, the BMA’s chief curator. After the exhibit closes in Charm City early next year, it is scheduled to travel to three other museums nationwide.
Curators Jessica Bell Brown of the BMA and Ryan N. Dennis of the Mississippi Museum of Art mix these famous folk with nine lesser-known artists, many with family ties to Maryland or Mississippi. That juxtaposition makes a statement about the faith they are placing in these up-and-coming creators.
In particular, sharing gallery space with the internationally renowned Bradford, who represented the U.S. in the 2017 Venice Biennale (often described as “the art world Olympics”), is akin to being invited to jam with Paul McCartney at Radio City Music Hall. It doesn’t get much headier than that.
“It’s humbling,” said the mixed-media artist Jamea Richmond-Edwards, 40, of Washington, D.C. “It’s kind of unreal. But after we’ve worked so hard, maybe this is saying that we’ve finally arrived.”
Several of the commissioned artists had been personally affected by the migration and created works that feel deeply intimate.
Viewers who peer inside the four black, glass and steel trapezoids that constitute the Brooklyn, New York-based artist Torkwase Dyson’s monumental “Way Over There Inside Me (A Festival of Inches)” find slender vertical columns of reflected light that seemingly have been scattered across the four poles of the Earth, like displaced ghosts.
And in other galleries, the New York artist Leslie Hewitt creates a poignant symphony of empty spaces in her three installations called “Untitled (Imperceptible, Slow Drag, Barely Moving).” Steel beams form the outlines of rooms, and inside the mostly bare confines have been placed family heirlooms: fluted glass plates and tiny, delicate cups. The glassware is stacked on the floor, so transparent and fragile, barely protected. They could be shattered to bits by one inattentive movement from a blundering boot.
The exhibit also includes a recording booth where visitors can share personal stories of their own exoduses, voluntary or otherwise.
For Cook Jr.’s commission, “Let My Testimony Sit Next to Yours,” he worked with a genealogist to trace his father’s family to South Carolina in the mid-19th century. The exhibit includes a tattered black-and-white wedding photo, dated around 1900, of the artist’s great-great-grandparents, James H. Cook Jr. and Minnie Pearson Cook.
A long vertical tear in the paper cuts the husband in half. Given what happened next, that rip seems almost prophetic.
“My great-great-grandfather got into an encounter with a white man and had to flee South Carolina for Augusta, Georgia,” Cook Jr. said.
“He eventually found work and someplace to live and wrote to his wife, who was raising the family in South Carolina by herself. He stated that he wanted Minnie and their children to move to Augusta. But the person who retrieved that letter wasn’t his wife. It was his daughter, and at the time, she was dating a young gentleman. Out of fear that she would have to leave him behind, she kept that letter hidden from her mother.
“The family never lived together again.”
Once the cycle of separation and loss had been set in motion, the artist found, it perpetuated itself throughout the generations and eventually enmeshed his father.
“My dad had a difficult upbringing,” Cook Jr. said.
The artist learned that his grandmother died when his father was a toddler and that his grandfather struggled with alcoholism. Perhaps reasoning that his son would be better off in a stable home, the grandfather sent his child to live with his sister.
By the time Cook Sr. celebrated his fifth birthday, his father was dead.
Cook Sr. declined to be interviewed for this story. But he is present in the form of a letter that he wrote to his own father, William Cook Jr., whom he addresses as “Pops” and that is included in the exhibit.
“It’s been over 30 years since you passed away,” Cook Sr. wrote. “I never thought about how you not being around when I was young has impacted me as a father. It was easier for me to not think about it. I’ve been carrying this pain with me, and I’ve passed the pain along to my sons. I have not been the father I could be. But they have forgiven me and I have a second chance to make it right.”
After many long and heartfelt conversations between father and son, the artist felt something shift inside him. It wasn’t that the anger went away, exactly. But over time, the anger became less important. It made room for other feelings.
“Our relationship is a work in progress,” Cook Jr. said. “One thing you learn about forgiveness is that it cannot come with strings attached.”
To finish the commission, Cook Jr. had to shoot one final photograph. He invited his father into his studio at Howard University and pulled out his camera.
“When I look through a lens, I am able to see people in a different way,” Cook Jr. said.
In Cook Jr.’s final photograph for “The Great Migration,” Larry Cook Sr. is seated on a metal stool, wearing khaki pants and an ochre-colored shirt. His back is erect and his hands are crossed on his lap. Though the older man is bald and the younger man has long braids cascading down his back, the first thing that most observers notice is how closely father and son resemble each other.
In the photograph, Cook Sr. gazes directly at the viewer. His eyes are steady and seem to hold nothing back. He appears to be a man that viewers can trust.
“When I looked through the lens, I could see my father’s pain and trauma,” Larry Cook Jr. said, “but I could also see his sense of pride, his energy and confidence and love.
“In a lot of ways, I was looking at myself.”
If you go
What: “A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration”
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
Hours: Through Jan. 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays
Ticket price: $5-$15
Information: Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org