A Cosmos of Southern Black Expression: “The Dirty South” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

“The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” surveys the past hundred years of artistic expression by Black artists who have lived or worked in the American South. The exhibition claims that the culture and aesthetics of Southern hip-hop constitutes an American art form. It firmly situates the musical genre within the lineages of interdisciplinary Black cultural production, including and referencing forms not often recognized by museums, such as Black fashion, architecture, and contemporary music genres. The more than 140 works in the exhibition, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond through September 6, are united by what curator Valerie Cassel Oliver calls the “sonic impulses” of Black expression, which this intergenerational group of artists expresses as the compulsion to be not just seen but also heard and felt.

Visitors may enter “The Dirty South” expecting to find a definitive statement on what constitutes the American South. Subverting geographic, iconographic, and historical distinctions, the exhibition instead offers a range of depictions of the South directly through objects, images, and sounds. Among them are fantastical drawings by North Carolina artist Minnie Evans (1892–1987) of vivid mindscapes figuring vegetation and the human body. Her 1969 piece Three Faces Surmounting Landscape is placed in conversation with contemporary Atlanta artist Michi Meko’s multimedia work on canvas, The Seasons – Summer, 2019, which suggests the cosmos or a lively field of fireflies against the night sky. The juxtaposition of the works points to a legacy of interrogations of the physical and psychological landscapes of the South, across time and space. Such artistic cosmologies can be identified throughout the galleries, through shared uses of materials, craft traditions, and cultural references.

Parked within the atrium of the VMFA is a 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance titled Slab, credited to rapper International Jones. Those familiar with hip-hop culture may view the work and recall summer car shows and anticipate the boom of subwoofers filling the streets. The Cadillac became a symbol of economic stability and social status within mid-twentieth-century Black American culture: acquiring the vehicle was a means of making the American dream more tangible, despite the onslaught of systemic racism that made it nearly impossible to attain. Hip-hop culture of the later twentieth century subsumed the Cadillac to represent not the aspirations of the Black middle class, but power and wealth. The machine became a canvas of expression through innovative technology, design, and embellishment. Slab thus illustrates the porous barriers between art and material within Black Southern culture. “Embellishment” can be used as an anchoring term to describe how even the most mundane of objects produced by Black people become an opportunity for artistic expression. This is most legible in the varied uses of found objects, assemblage, and quilt motifs throughout the show.

“The Dirty South” uses sound—both musical and vocal—as guide and metaphor, permeating space, contextualizing and recontextualizing everything it touches. The diverse examples of Southern culture are connected by a foundational impulse of call and response, expressed aurally, visually, and materially. No Black art form can exist without the other, and meaning is made and remade through articulation. Hip-hop exists because of jazz, poetry, dance, sculpture, red clay earth, and praise houses. This is beautifully illustrated by the exhibition’s installation itself, which unfolds across the encyclopedic institution’s sprawling grounds. Interdisciplinary artist John Sims’s audio installation The AfroDixieRemixes (2002–15) reverberates against the gabled ceiling of a historic chapel owned by the museum and dedicated to those who died in service to the Confederacy. Engaging the hip-hop methods of sampling and remixing, Sims appropriated Daniel Decatur Emmett’s 1859 minstrel anthem to instead center the Black American perspective on Dixie sentiment. Through the chapel’s open doors and out to the Richmond campus, sound forces listeners to contend with the presence of Black history within the revered Confederate site. This will probably be the most historically significant venue for Sims’s installation, which is set to travel with the rest of the exhibition to several locations across the United States.

Paul Stephen Benjamin, Summer Breeze, 2018, three-channel video, color, sound, 20 minutes.

Beckoning visitors to the exhibition’s entrance is Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Summer Breeze (2018), a large-scale configuration of various sizes of tube televisions in a form resembling an altar. The majority of the screens play a video of a Black child on a swing, moving back and forth toward and away from the viewer. At the installation’s core, a single screen plays footage from Billie Holiday’s iconic 1959 performance of “Strange Fruit,” flanked by clips of Jill Scott’s impassioned 2015 version of the same song. Reaching toward the ceiling of the atrium, the sculpture’s scale is surpassed only by the resounding audio of Holiday crooning “Black bodies swinging, in the summer breeze,” echoed by a belting Scott. The screens’ pulsing blue and gray light paired with the voices’ hypnotic repetition envelops viewers in the contradictory realities of being Black in the American South. Summer Breeze creates a second meaning for Holiday’s phrase, juxtaposing the legacy of lynching with the fact of survival and Black joy. These tensions between pain and pleasure, violence and peace, oppression and transcendence, pervade the show, rendering the South complex and beautiful.

This is an important exhibition. It does not attempt to explore the full history of Southern hip-hop; rather, “The Dirty South” illuminates the powerful influences—the body, the landscape, and spiritual practices—that undergird all forms of Southern expression. Aligned with the efforts of contemporary rappers, such as Jay-Z, the exhibition seeks to pay proper reverence to the hip-hop genre, claiming its mutual engagement with the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual experiences of Black people in the South. The sheer size of the show can make it feel disjointed at times, yet it does the essential work of illustrating that Black culture is not produced in a vacuum. Artists of all genders, trained and untrained, call and respond to each other across media, uncovering persisting themes, but ultimately presenting a non-monolithic and dynamic South. Including both Benny Andrews’s 1994 Revival Meeting, a painted snapshot of a spirited congregation, and Felandus Thames’s Just Hanging (2014), a sculpture that recalls the tradition of tennis shoes thrown over telephone wires, the show makes clear why we respond, “Na nah, na nah” when New Orleans rapper Master P calls, “Ungh!”

This sprawling exhibition explores hip-hop as part of the “sonic impulse” that links decades of Black creative expression in the American South.Read MoreArt in America, Reviews, American South, hip hop, john-sims, Paul Stephen Benjamin, Valerie Cassel OliverARTnews.comRead More

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