By Sherry Lucas
New Symphony of Time brings a rich, refreshing collage of creativity and imagery to the galleries at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, where new and familiar artworks draw the eye not only for their inherent, individual interest and significance, but also for the bold juxtapositions of their display.
The ongoing exhibition, a reinstallation of the museum’s Mississippi galleries after a two-year exhibition marking the state’s bicentennial, features works drawn primarily from the permanent collection but also includes recently purchased artworks and new loans from national institutions and private collections.
Margaret Walker’s epic poem This Is My Century: Black Synthesis of Time provided exhibition curators with phrases that guide a thematic journey through 170 works by 119 artists in the museum’s most diverse exhibition to date. Artwork labels with artist head shots reinforce that diverse quality. State outlines on labels distinguish Mississippi artists and reflect the population of the community whose stories the exhibition explores. Time is circular rather than linear here (echoed in the exhibition logo, which also calls to mind a camera lens); concepts of reckoning and reconciliation continually emerge. Salient quotes by artists, writers and leaders offer more avenues for insight and contemplation.
New Symphony of Time opens with the art equivalent of a dawning sun, warm and blazingly vivid in the Gwendolyn Magee quilt Our New Day Begun.
Works by African American, Caucasian, and Native American artists in the Ancestry and Memory galleries prompt strong new conversations in a no-barriers space. “Who are your people?” an introductory panel starts, and a sweeping glance confirms they are all there, in a shared history that can be painful, complicated, and captivating.
A colonial man’s outline peels back to reveal the face of a woman of African ancestry in Titus Kaphar’s Darker Than Cotton. In another Magee quilt, When Hope Unborn Had Died, a sack of cotton extends beyond the quilt’s edge, becoming a three-dimensional anchor to an enslaved woman’s anguished silhouette as her child is carted away. Sculptures Feral Benga by Richmond Barthé and African Head by Lonnie Holley counter that hurt with graceful and solid hope.
Bayou imagery toggles between hauntingly lovely and oddly haunting in the side-by-side arrangement of atmospheric works by Joseph Rusling Meeker and Sally Mann. In the adjacent gallery, a beaded punching bag by Jeffrey Gibson and a large oil painting by Marie Hull both have plenty to say about the tough lives and inherent strength of sharecroppers.
The Migration, Movement, and Home area’s first gallery is dominated by three large and powerful works made even more compelling by their context — a Benny Andrews artwork from his Trail of Tears series, George Morland’s Execrable Human Traffick and Ernest Crichlow’s Underground III of black dancers in a moonlit field. Heartbreak, oppression, strength, resilience and defiance all resonate in these images of people forcibly moved to new lands far from native lands and home.
New Symphony of Time integrates the works of self-taught artists throughout, evening the viewing field, elevating the art and focusing more attention on story than style in the works. Jimmie Lee Sudduth’s depictions of a musician and a dancer and Luster Willis’ scene of a family home party pulse with the rhythms of Southern music.
Celebratory notes struck in Ethel Wright Mohamed’s needlework A Shivaree and Henry Clay Anderson’s photograph A Wedding at Home, on a Hot Day share common threads across different cultures and eras. Other works pique, challenge and nudge nostalgia in our notions of home — among them Charles Carraway’s exquisitely painted interior, Eudora Welty’s photograph of a houseboat family and Joe Overstreet’s oil on stainless steel cloth with its chintz hints and screen-door shadows.
Other thematic areas in the exhibition delve into Nature and the Sublime, Connections Across Time and Liberty for All. Liberty, along the exhibition’s vast central hall, is particularly potent, anchored at one end by William Beckwith’s commanding bronze bust of historic Chickasaw leader Piominko, and at the other, by Rico Gatson’s Four Stations color video of locations significant in the Emmett Till story, and Felandus Thames’ “banner” in hair bead cascades that references a famous photo of Myrlie Evers from her husband’s funeral. Evers’ profile image gazes in the direction of Jason Bouldin’s portrait of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, with his coat off and sleeves rolled up for the activist work that cemented his legacy and made him a target for assassination. Surrounding the portrait, photographs from the civil rights movement flesh out the era. A quilt of a new flag design, by Geraldine Nash of Crossroads Quilters and Dennis Sullivan, with students from Chamberlain-Hunt Academy, is a colorful reminder of youth, the power of symbols and the possibility of change.
“Art has the power to change hearts, to be the spark that ignites conversations,” Monique Davis, managing director of the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Center for Art & Public Exchange (CAPE), said at the exhibition’s opening in September.
With this expansive, accessible and inclusive survey, and its abundance of emotional truths and fresh perspectives, New Symphony of Time may spark the museum’s richest, most layered conversations yet.
Sherry Lucas is a Mississippi native with a decades-long career covering culture in the state.