Artist Derrick Adams at the Museum of Arts and Design
If there’s one topic that most Americans would agree on, it’s that our transportation infrastructure is far from perfect. Congestion, pollution, and disrepair make the process of moving a societal-wide problem, and in our daily lives, a headache. The challenge of how to improve this system is the driving force behind everything from EVs and car-sharing to autonomous vehicles. And it’s where tech, the auto industry, and the government are investing both critical thinking and money.
But changing infrastructure to better mobilize people has always been a daunting task, and sometimes the perceived fixes have led to more divisions. The roads and highways of the 20th century connected people in a way that railroads and the horse and buggy could not. Sometimes those roads carved through neighborhoods, and as highways became interconnected, the shift brought out new issues for travelers.
In Sanctuary, a new exhibition that opens this week at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, artist Derrick Adams explores the topic of mobility as it relates to one group of motorists: African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.
The precipice of Adams’ body of work focuses on The Negro Motorist Green Book, first self-published by Victor Hugo Green in 1936. Green, a New York City postal worker, wrote: “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that keeps him from running into difficulties, embarrassments, and to make his trip more enjoyable.” Known as The Green Book, the publication was widely used during the era of Jim Crow, and at its peak, it sold 20,000 copies per year and was last printed in 1967.
“It’s a celebration of the author of the book, being a regular citizen who took this on as an important task,” Adams told The Verge at the press preview. “That’s what I focused more on in the show: that he did this because he saw the desire for people to feel safe as they moved around and go back forth more than any time in history.”
The Green Book has been referenced in several historical exhibitions and is easily searchable in archives, but Adams’ handling of the material takes on a new perspective in an era where many of the issues that resonated in 1936 continue to be topical.
The show is held on an entire floor of the museum. When visitors enter the exhibition space, they face a room divided by an elevated platform, which is meant to be a highway. (Think Boy Scout pinewood derby track meets model train set.) Cars constructed out of newsboy caps dot the two-lane road, separated by physical doors. On the walls, mixed-media collages capture the places that make up the guidebook, including beauty parlors, hotels, and restaurants. Text from Green’s book is pasted on the far corners of the wall.
“I was thinking about things that represent mobility and travel from more of a surface level — the costuming, the idea of moving around to identify certain aspects of leisure and the route,” Adams said. “I wanted to create a structure that’s a boundary but also a crossing. Highways separate people, but there are certain areas where you have access to what’s on the other side.”
Mobility isn’t only a question of science and technology. It’s a broad proposition about the ability of our audience to move with ease. It’s a premise we’re promised as companies and government officials wade into the waters of self-driving cars and hyperloops. It’s about pulling together pieces in messy, intersecting ways. Curated by Dexter Wimberly, the exhibition has implications that resonate far beyond the art world, and it’s an example of how people working on the next set of mobility issues should consider multiple perspectives. Transportation has been both historically divisive and empowering. In order to be inclusive moving forward, it’s important to see the world from viewpoints that go beyond assumptions of how we live. Sometimes that means looking back in order to move forward.
In his show, Adams quotes Green’s text: “There will be a time sometime in the future when this guide will not have to be published. That’s when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.”