Artist Derrick Adams reinterprets Jim Crow era travel guidebooks

The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook for black travelers during the Jim Crow era, was published from 1936 to 1966. The book lists businesses—hotels, petrol stations, restaurants, and barbershops—that were willing to serve black Americans. It covered the majority of the United States and was indispensable in helping millions navigate a precarious landscape marred by racial terrorism, from vehicle searches and intimidation to “Sundown Towns” (places that banned African Americans from entering city limits after dark).

In his new show at the Museum of Arts and Design, “Sanctuary,” artist Derrick Adams explores the idea of refuge, travel, and what the artist calls “a very American story.” “It wasn’t like I wanted to remake or glamorize the Green Book,” the Brooklyn-based artist admits. “I wanted to talk about what it represented for people at the time. In a way that’s less literal. This particular body of work is about having people empathize with the idea of what it means to travel, to have borders, to have accessibility.”

Adams’s world is made of 10 mixed-media collages on wood panels and one large-scale sculpture spanning the length of the room. The wall panels situated around the room are indeed rather abstract. Each depicts a type of business listed in the Green Book. “I’m trying to contextualize and create a sense of the spirit … the feel, the type of vibe the space captured,” Adams explains. One collage is composed of layered felt rings cut from brimmed hats. “This particular place was a men’s club called Top Hat,” he says. In another, he assembles miniature wooden windows atop Art Deco-like cloth cut into sleeves and a bodice: “This commercial, upholstery material is stuff you might see in an old hotel,” Adams continues.

Textiles are not unfamiliar to the 47-year-old artist, whose sweeping multidisciplinary practice has included paint, collage, music, and performance art. “ON,” his solo show last year at Pioneer Works, featured vibrant six-foot tall wall hangings made of boldly colored fabrics and dashikis, in front of which performers improvised stereotypical African American roles in television. Much of Adams’s work considers the idea of black identity, self-perception and representation—this series is no different. “I’m interested in how costumes and apparel creates a sense of identity. One that is imposed, but also one that is projected through the subject as a way of how they want to be seen.”

The more literal component of the show is its centerpiece: a 20-inch wide, waist-high highway stretching through the space. “It’s like this barrier that’s elevated so you’ll feel a little bit more caged,” explains Adams. “The highway will have breaks in the sculpture with life-size doors that open on both sides.” Traveling up and down the road are literal driving hats—a series of small sculptures made of wood armatures with wheels. “They exist on the road going north and south, and up and down the door,” he says. “The road represents going, and the door coming … so there’s this exchange of symbolism that everyone can reference and understand. I’m really trying to give people more relational aesthetics. Just imagine not being able to come and go.”

The question of the Green Book’s pertinence in today’s America, where mobility and accessibility remain contingent on race, is unavoidable. To suggest that it is the show’s only intent, however, would be perfunctory. “I like to discover histories of people who were able to navigate through oppressive structures,” Adams muses. “For me, it’s about exposing other narratives that are not necessarily thought of as being important or political.” His narrative is one of leisure and relaxation. “Most working-class people were always told that you could never take a break because it shows that you’re lazy so people work harder and feel like they’re never doing enough,” says Adams “The idea of vacation is also an act of resistance. It shows the resilience of people to still be able to enjoy life and enjoy family.”

“Sanctuary” recalls a history that cannot be omitted, but it also one with which many cannot—and should not—hastily commiserate. Victor Hugo Green, the eponymous creator of the book, had hoped that one day his publication would be obsolete; Adams ensures that it will not be overlooked. Perhaps remembering and recreating sanctuaries is an act of resistance too.