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Migration is central to human experience, and art history reflects that. Skipping through time and geography, we explore Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series, Lapita pottery, the Akbarnama, and the Mexica codex "Tira de la Peregrinación," and also discuss contemporary art about migration.

This episode was made in partnership with Smarthistory, the most-visited art history website in the world (https://smarthistory.org). Subscribe to their channel today: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3R-xanNgtoa8b7gpVexVlA.

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Migration is central to human experience.

And by migration, I mean people moving from one place to another with the intention of settling either temporarily or for good. This is happening in our world right now, as we’re witnessing the highest levels of human movement on record.

And it’s been happening since homo sapiens first traveled out of Africa around 60 to 70,000 years ago. People move for many different reasons, whether its voluntary or forced, or due war, persecution, discrimination, environmental forces, economic forces, or lack of opportunity. Whether or not movement has defined your human experience, you carry around evidence of the migration of your ancestors in your DNA.

And you are wherever you are in part because of migration. Our world today is so different than the one our ancestors navigated, but the complex phenomenon of migration is something that links us and still affects us all. This is the first of five videos that focuses on an aspect of life today, and looks back to see how people from the past have made objects and artworks that speak to it in some way, and tell us something about their experience.

This is art about migration. I don’t know how I thought of this one first, but Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series is a succession of sixty paintings, made of tempera on board and measuring 12 by 18 inches each. The panels have captions that help tell the story of what in US history is called the “Great Migration,” or that time starting in the nineteen teens and continuing for decades, when more than 6 million African Americans left the mostly rural South and moved to the mostly urban North.

In 1910, the country’s largest black populations were in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and by 1970 the country’s largest black populations were in New York, Illinois, and California. This giant exodus is now described in sweeping terms and totalizing statistics, but Lawrence’s series makes this history personal and real. It begins in a train station with a mass of people on the move, to Chicago, New York, and St.

Louis, three of the major cities that attracted African Americans who were seeking out work, security, better access to education, and the freedom to vote. Many were also escaping the harsh conditions of the south, and fewer farming jobs due to flooding and boll weevil infestation. Good opportunities were few, and racism extreme.

Lynchings were very much a part of life. And often had a hand in families’ deliberations over whether and when to leave. Those leaving the South were also responding to the need for labor in the north--jobs available because of those away fighting in World War I, and an increased demand for American goods at home and abroad.

Labor agents from the North came South to recruit workers, providing train tickets whose cost had to be worked off upon arrival. The decision to leave wasn’t easy, and neither was the reality of what was faced once they reached their destinations. Some of the housing was better, and some was worse, overcrowded tenement houses that lead to a higher incidence of tuberculosis.

Working conditions weren’t great either; many learned only upon arrival that they’d been brought in as strikebreakers and suffered retaliation. And there was still tremendous discrimination, open hostility from Northerners of many skin colors, as well as riots in protest to their arrival in some neighborhoods. Migrants built strong communities nevertheless, often centered around the church, and exercised their rights to vote and access education.

The series was painted in 1940 and 1941 by 23 year-old Jacob Lawrence, whose parents were originally from the South and were very much part of this migration. After moving around the northeast, Lawrence and his family arrived in Harlem in 1930, where he found a community of mentors who fostered his development as an artist, and ignited his interest in black history. He got a job with the Federal Art Project, chronicled the history of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, and illustrated the accomplishments of Harriet.

Tubman. In 1940, Lawrence received a $1500 grant to create our series in question, allowing him to rent a studio, travel to the south for the first time with his wife, painter. Gwendolyn Knight, and conduct research through written and oral accounts.

But it was also a history that he had lived, and that was very much alive around him. Lawrence worked on all 60 panels at once, laying down flat areas of color one by one to keep them consistent across the series. Knight prepared the panels and helped write the captions that go along with each image.

The captions contain the repetition of certain words that—with the repetition of colors and forms—contribute to the feeling of syncopation or rhythm in the work. A sense of momentum permeates the series. Providing us glimpses into individual moments and scenes of this vast experience of millions of people.

It comes together to form a cohesive and yet also intimate story, not a historical event firmly rooted in the past, but something still very much underway. The series ends where it begins, at a train station, with the words “And the migrants kept coming.” And they did, until around 1970, when black populations began to grow again in metropolitan areas of the South. But Lawrence’s series has lived on, continuing to tell the relevant tale of individuals deciding to take huge leaps of faith, to find out whether their lives might be better off lived somewhere else.

Others who took enormous leaps of faith were those who set out in long-distance seafaring canoes to populate an enormous span of islands in the Pacific Ocean some 3500 to 4000 years ago. We can trace their journey through fragments of the distinctive terracotta pottery they left behind. Archaeologists began referring to the people who created this pottery as “Lapita” in 1952, after mishearing the indigenous Kanak community’s word for the site in New Caledonia where fragments had been found.

The “potsherds” found there---that’s the archaeological term for broken pieces of ceramics-- were eventually dated to 800 BCE. By linking stylistically- related sherds in more than 200 sites that span over 4,000 kilometers, archaeologists began to visualize this incredible movement of the Lapita people. Through the dating of these fragments unearthed in stratigraphic layers, we can chart the departure of the.

Lapita from Taiwan around 2000 BCE. And see that they made it to the Bismarck Archipelago by around 1400 BCE. And that they then spread out to areas as distant as Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa by about 850 BCE.

That’s a long way to go! The Lapita were clearly master navigators and seafarers, but they also made and decorated their pottery in a particular way. They blended reddish-brown clay with sand, and shaped the vessels by hand.

The pieces were decorated with comb-like stamps that pierced the surface of the wet clay and formed motifs and patterns that range from simple to complex. A paste of white coral lime was applied to make the decoration more apparent, and the pots were placed in open fires to harden. They made mostly bowls and flat-bottomed vessels, which they used for serving and storing food.

And we know from sherds found in the Mussau islands, where there is very little naturally occurring clay, that the Lapita either took their pots with them as they traveled, or brought in materials from other places. But the amazing thing is that while there is plenty of variation in shape and size and complexity, what links these potsherds is a discernible and coherent system of patterning. Inspired by linguistic analysis, archaeologists have been able to categorize the design elements of Lapita pottery, and parse a system or “grammar” that they all follow.

As the Lapita moved across the Pacific ocean, the design system changed incrementally but still adhered to the rules of the system, whether it was a simple decoration, or an intricate pattern with an occasional face or figure. The other really cool thing is that some of this design system can be seen in more recent barkcloth decorations, like this one from the Lau Islands in Fiji that dates to the late 19th or early 20th century. And you can also see it in pottery that is still made in this way by descendants of the Lapita people in Fiji and other areas of Polynesia.

You can even detect similar patterning in tattooing in the area, both historically and today. In fact, the same toothy stamps that were used to decorate Lapita pottery may have been the same tools used to make tattoos. While there’s a tremendous amount we do not know about the culture that created this pottery, through these fragments we have been able to begin to understand something of how this great sea of islands became populated.

We can tell that the farther east the Lapita headed, the more simple the patterning of their pottery became. And that they encountered and mixed with numerous other cultures along the way. Through these remnants, we can appreciate the miraculousness of the journeys undertaken by the ancestors of those who are living in the central Pacific today.

Next we’ll focus on the migration story of the Mexica people from their homeland of. Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico. We know about this story through a variety of sources that combine history and myth, one of the most central of which is the Tira de la Peregrinación, which translates to “The Pilgrimage Strip.” It’s a book made from one long sheet of fig bark accordion-folded into 21 ½ pages, created at some point between 1530 and 1541, just about ten years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

It comes from a long tradition of book-making in Mexica culture that began thousands of years before Europeans invaded, and well before the Mexica began to be referred to as “Aztecs” in the early 19th Century. Typically made from deer hides, cloth, or a variety of plant-based papers, these books--or codices as they’re also called--consist primarily of images and pictograms that form a kind of picture-writing. This particular book is often called the Boturini Codex, named after the Italian collector who owned it in the 18th Century, and its images are rendered in black ink, not colored as was customary.

The book is unfinished, likely intended to have been longer and brightly painted. And while it was created in the 16th Century, the migration it illustrates is one that began in the 12th Century, when a relatively small community of Mexica left Aztlán, a place that may or may not have been real. It’s described as being located on a lake, and is thought to be somewhere in present-day northern Mexico or the southwestern United.

States. The Mexica left at the urging of their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, whom we can see carried on the back of a figure embarking on this journey to establish a new settlement. Through the book, we follow the footprints of the Mexica as they travel, looking for the sign of an eagle on a cactus, which their deity told them would be the signal to settle.

The story unfolds sequentially, in a combination of images and glyphs that identify general types of places as well as particular place names. For example, this place glyph identifies Chapultepec, the same “Grasshopper Hill” you can still visit today on the western edge of Mexico City. Later written accounts indicate that the travelers witnessed this sign in 1325 on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where they established their capital city of Tenochtitlan.

Through warfare they went on to conquer most of what is now Central and Southern Mexico, and formed the Triple Alliance with the lords of Texcoco and Tlacopan to strengthen their power. The city developed into a bustling metropolis and was a marvel of engineering, with sophisticated causeways linking islands, and aqueducts bringing in fresh water. The Mexica were successful traders, importing and exporting a wide array of goods, and received valuable materials as tribute from conquered areas.

They were accomplished artists, creating monumental stone sculptures, as well as mosaics, featherworks, and of course illustrated manuscripts. When Hernán Cortés and his Spanish army arrived in 1519, Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world, although it would fall to the Spanish in only a few years. This book charts a journey that is mytho-historical, combining aspects of mythology with historical components.

The Mexica did settle in Tenochtitlan and create an enormously powerful empire, and this book is an important chronicle of that history, as told by the descendants of those who undertook the journey. The Spanish burned or otherwise destroyed a vast amount of Mexica cultural heritage, and we rely on codices like this one to keep this heritage alive. As well as, of course, the spectacular remains of Tenochtitlan, parts of which like the Templo Mayor, have been excavated and are on view in the heart of present day Mexico.

City. And it’s worth noting that this origin story is clearly referenced in the Mexican flag, at whose center sits an eagle perched atop a cactus. The final work we’ll explore is also a book, created only a few decades later, but in an entirely different part of the world.

And the story this one tells is less literally about the migration of people, and more about the movement of traditions and ideas. The Akbarnama was commissioned by none other than Akbar, the third emperor of the Mughal dynasty, a Muslim empire established in India in the early sixteenth century. Translating to “the Chronicle” or “Book of Akbar,” it tells the story of his life in three volumes composed of text and miniature paintings.

Akbar was born in 1543 in Pakistan and inherited the Mughal territories at the tender age of thirteen, after the sudden death of his father, Humayun. After living in exile in Iran for a number of years, Humayun had become a full convert to the language, art and cultural traditions of Persia. And when he returned to power he brought these ideas back with him to India, and established a workshop of miniature painters lead by two master artists from Iran.

Akbar took great interest in the workshop and expanded it, commissioning numerous manuscripts including the Akbarnama, which was begun in 1569 and completed in the 1590s. The book was written by Akbar’s court historian and illustrated by artists from Persia as well as many regions of India, both Muslim and Hindu. The work they created was a remarkable and highly distinctive blend of approaches and styles, blending indigenous Indian techniques, with Persian as well as European traditions.

They opted for the vertical format common to Persian miniature painting, and often posed figures in standard Persian gestures and poses. But the artists also felt free to veer from that style, incorporating larger scale figures and the vibrant, saturated colors typical of the Indian tradition. The artists also worked in a greater illusion of depth, influenced by artworks and texts from Europe brought by Jesuit missionaries to Akbar’s court.

The narrative of Akbar’s life is filled with great action and intrigue, but it is this glorious movement of styles and techniques that is our migration of focus. The diverse range of artists who collaborated on this work cherished old approaches, but also embraced the new, integrating multiple traditions into the fresh and cosmopolitan style that characterizes. Mughal art.

They were able to do this under the patronage of a ruler who encouraged religious and cultural tolerance, promoted through policies as well as art. Not just painting but also literature, music, and architecture. Akbar scheduled regular viewings of the work as it was being created, and gave its makers an exceptional degree of freedom to experiment.

And by the time of his death, the imperial library he had built contained more than 24,000 volumes. These are only four of a great many artworks and objects that tell stories about the movement of people and ideas. There are numerous works being made now, and that have been made in the recent past, that share aspects of migration experiences.

Like Doris Salcedo’s tremendous crack in the floor of the Tate Modern, titled Shibboleth. It was made to represent the immigrant experience in Europe, and the lines that separate those who belong from those who do not. And Ai Weiwei’s 2017 film Human Flow, which takes you through 23 countries in the course of a year, and gives direct views into the scale as well as the individual faces of the contemporary global refugee crisis.

What are the works that stand out to you as remarkable chronicles of migration, either from today or from the past? Let’s talk about them in the comments, and also discuss how and whether these objects from art history might shed light on the issues that surround us today. This episode was made in partnership with Smarthistory, an outstanding resource for anyone curious about art and cultural objects from around the world.

Their videos and website bring together the expertise of more than 300 art historians, archaeologists, and curators, and cover a huge range of topics and cultures from prehistory to today. Subscribe to their YouTube channel, and visit Smarthistory.org to learn more about the artworks and histories discussed in this video, and many, many more.