'Leaving Mississippi': New exhibit explores Great Migration through multi-media

The great migration of blacks from the rural South to the industrial North throughout the 20th century is the focus of a new multimedia art exhibit that opened Thursday at the Columbus Museum.

"Leaving Mississippi -- Reflections on Heroes and Folklore: Works by Najee Dorsey," will run until Jan. 4. It documents black history through bold, vivid colors and a variety of items combined for multidimensional appeal. Materials used to create the artwork include photos, ripped paper, paint and miscellaneous objects.

Dorsey, an artist who moved to Columbus four months ago, said "Leaving Mississippi" is based on his perspective as a native of Mississippi County, Ark. But the title is a metaphor that encapsulates the experiences of sojourners everywhere.

"Migration is not a story that's only familiar to us," he said. "It's familiar to a lot of immigrants that moved from one place to another."

Dorsey, 42, is a native of Blytheville, Ark., where he lived his whole life before moving to Atlanta in 2005. He was the recipient of the 2006 Patrons Purchase Award from Polk Museum of Art. His work is also included in the collections of Charles H. Wright African-American Museum in Detroit, Syracuse University, the African-American Museum in Dallas, the Marietta Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., and the Liberty Bank and Trust Company in New Orleans.

In 2010, he launched the website Black Art in America, which is a global social network and resource for black visual artists, collectors and art enthusiasts. He has also been participating in activities at Columbus' historic Liberty Theatre.

Dorsey said documenting black migration movements is nothing new. It's already been done by the famous black painter Jacob Lawrence and other scholars.

"But there's always a perfect opportunity to revisit that history and I think that's one of the things I'm excited about presenting this weekend, telling those stories," he said. "Some that are known to the public and some that are unknown."

One assemblage in the "Leaving Mississippi" exhibit is called "Americana." The centerpiece consists of a cluster of black bottles, symbolizing the spirit of people who traveled in search of a better life. Other items include a written text about a 10-year-old girl, Rubie Bond, who left Mississippi with her parents in 1917 and migrated north to Wisconsin so her father could work in a factory. Dorsey added a Greyhound schedule board to the assemblage for sentimental reasons.

"My first job at 12 years old was working at a Greyhound Bus Station (in Blytheville), and my mother was the first black ticket agent at that bus station," he said. "So I'm happy to have this in the show."

Dorsey has also included aspects of Columbus black history. Among the many pieces of artwork adorning the museum's walls is his recent painting, "Liberty Legends," featuring Columbus native Ma Rainey, "The Mother of the Blues." In the painting, she's hanging out at a "juke joint" with other famous people who performed at the Liberty. They include Marian Anderson, Cab Calloway, Louie Armstrong and Nat King Cole. Dorsey said he will encourage people who view the exhibit to also visit the Ma Rainey House & Blues Museum, located at 805 Fifth Ave.

Kristen Miller Zohn, Columbus Museum's director of collections and exhibitions, said the museum is always looking for emerging new artists in the region and found Dorsey while he was living in Atlanta.

"Because Najee's work deals with the civil rights movement and some historical figures from the past, and he's a wonderful artist, we thought this was a good combination to have on our exhibition schedule and to put in the history gallery," Zohn said. "As a curator, I appreciate the multimedia and multidimensional aspects of the show. Even the two-dimensional pieces have depth because they're collaged together."

In addition to migration, the exhibit covers resistance movements in the Americas from the Haitian Revolution of 1791 to the recent Occupy Movement against social and economic inequality.

The exhibit includes a mixed media video that Dorsey created to explain the background of some of the pieces of the show and additional works not included in the exhibit. It also talks about resistance and how it's something still happening today.

"When we started this show it was the 1 percent movement, but today it's Ferguson, Missouri, going on," Zohn said. "It's sad that it still needs to happen, but it still does need to happen, so the opening of the show is happening at an interesting time in our country."

One of the paintings depicts the wife of Dangerfield Newby, one of the men involved in John Brown's 1859 rebellion and the first of his men to die in Harper's Ferry, Va. She's holding a letter that she wrote begging him to come and free her.

Another depicts a group called Deacons for Defense and Justice, the first armed division of the civil rights movement. In the late '50s-early '60s, members of the group picked up arms to protect organizers and parishioners against the Ku Klux Klan.

Dorsey said he included the resistance pieces in the exhibit to show a period when black people stood up for their rights, which he believes is less prevalent today.

"This video really speaks to that era when people decided to fight -- the Black Panthers, Malcolm (X)," he said. "But what happened? The leaders were killed and the next thing you know people were unconscious, even our artists."

"But what's the role of the artists? Do we not speak to man's humanity, or inhumanity, or the social ills of society?" he asked. "It doesn't have to be about someone dying. What about poverty? What about the war on the poor?"

He said what's happening in Ferguson saddens him as an artist, and he hopes his work will make a difference in the world.

"I'm thankful to have the show here," he said. "It's a clear reflection of who I am and what's important to me. So I just invite everyone to come out and take a look for themselves and see what they can take from it."