Mississippi has always been a crossroads. The mighty river built economic prosperity in the 1800s just as it brought military destruction during the Civil War. The fertile frontier was a symbol of freedom for some and an engine for the enslavement of others. Civil rights activists on the front lines of social change broke the law here to demand the founding promise of justice and equality nationwide.
Perhaps no other place holds in such equal measure the universal stories of trouble and triumph, defeat and victory. The fabric of American identity is laid bare in Mississippi through dynamic paradox. As William Faulkner said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” The state turns 200 years old in 2017. As we stand as this bicentennial intersection, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson embarks on an exploration of the state’s artistic legacy through the centuries to make sense of the lasting impact of Mississippi’s story.
The Museum begins its bicentennial commemorations with an initiative called Art Across Mississippi: Twelve Exhibitions, Twelve Communities. Beginning in May 2017, Art Across Mississippi sends twelve exhibitions from the Museum’s permanent collection to twelve communities across the state. They include photographs of blues musicians and atmospheric juke joints; works in diverse media made by African American artists, both academically trained and self-taught; exciting recent acquisitions of contemporary work; and monographic exhibitions by masters like Marie Hull, William Hollingsworth, and Walter Anderson.
The culminating piece of the Museum’s celebration coincides with statehood day in December, 2017. Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise, the latest in The Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series, is on view in Jackson from December 9, 2017 - July 8, 2018. The exhibition brings together rare and spectacular works made by Mississippians who articulated the meaning of home, by foreigners who imagined Mississippi from afar, and by American artists passing through who were struck by the beauty and complexity of the state.
The exhibition is unprecedented, the most ambitious exploration to date of Mississippi visual art’s sprawling trajectory. Sculpture created before European arrival by native peoples shares a space with idyllic depictions of the antebellum South. Art made in the aftermath of the Civil War tracks the social and economic shifts in Mississippi, revealing a state in the search for identity. In Depression and Civil Rights era work, a nuanced authenticity emerges as women and African American artists break into the artistic milieu as never before. A contemporary section of the exhibition yields the floor to important homegrown creators; Mississippi articulated in its own multifaceted voices.
Among the works in Picturing Mississippi are high profile loans from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota; National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; and many others.
Many of these artworks have not returned to the state in decades or, in some cases, centuries. They left with the artists who made them or were acquired by museums and private collectors. A portrait of Eudora Welty by Mississippian Mildred Wolfe is a prime example; it was painted for the National Portrait Gallery to immortalize her as an American genius, but it has never been shared publicly in her home state until now. The bicentennial moment brings this art back to illustrate to the world how and why Mississippi retains such deep cultural resonance. “Place never really stops informing us,” Welty wrote of Mississippi, “for it is forever astir, alive, changing, reflecting, like the mind of man itself. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better.” The Museum’s