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The Dirty South


A celebration of 100 years of southern Black culture comes to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, on view March 12 through July 25. Hailed as a “tour de force” by the LA Times, The Dirty South uses visual art, material objects, sound and music to explore how Black culture, across time and geography, has shaped and influenced the South and US contemporary culture at large.

Almost 30 years ago, André 3000 of the Atlanta-based duo OutKast, proclaimed, “The South got something to say.” The Dirty South makes clear that the conversation is alive and well. The multidisciplinary exhibition organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts spotlights the southern landscape through its musical heritage, spiritual complexity, and regional swagger. A mix of sculpture, paintings, works on paper, assemblage, textiles, music and ephemera provokes a deeper understanding of the African American South and its undeniable imprint on the history of American art. Many works are large and immersive.

“At its core, this exhibition is a celebration of the deeply intertwined relationship of art and music in southern Black culture,” said Alejo Benedetti, associate curator, contemporary art at Crystal Bridges and in-house curator of The Dirty South. “The American South is a complicated region with a painful past, and the exhibition does not shy away from that history. But equally important is that these works foreground the South as a site of radical potential, pride, and continuing influence far beyond its geographic borders.”

Benedetti will expand on these thoughts during a conversation with Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and acclaimed curator of The Dirty South, Friday, during the exhibition’s opening lecture on March 11, 2022, 7 – 8 pm. The lecture will be in the Great Hall and livestreamed for virtual audiences

The subtitle, Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, speaks to the various visual and auditory elements encountered throughout the show. An intergenerational group of visual artists – including Beverly Buchanan, Alma Thomas, Bethany Collins, Minnie Evans, Kara Walker, Bill Traylor, Rita Mae Pettway, Sanford Biggers, Nari Ward, Deborah Roberts, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Elizabeth Catlett, Paul Stephen Benjamin, Fahamu Pecou, and many more – are placed in dialogue with one another, weaving academically trained artists with “intuitive intellectuals,” or folk artists.

In addition to visual art, The Dirty South explores the evolution of various music genres over the past century and how they are connected. The sonic impulse, comprised of sound and music, is present across numerous musical genres including spirituals and gospel music, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul and funk, and the rise of southern hip-hop—a genre that gave new meaning to the term “dirty South.” Music, such as a looped recording of songs by Sister Gertrude Morgan, guides visitors through this exhibition in a way rarely experienced in an art museum.

The material culture of the dirty South is represented through various textiles, fabrics, and objects prevalent in southern Black culture – including a SLAB (Slow, Loud, And Bangin’) car in the museum’s south lobby, customized for this exhibition by New Orleans artist Richard FIEND Jones, a.k.a. International Jones. Quilt patterns prominent in Black quilting techniques (such as “Flying Geese”) make an appearance, both as a textile and as an influence for other mediums. The evolution of musical forms in materiality emerges through a colossal Cabinet of Wonders, featuring an array of costumes, instruments, and accessories from music history by artists such as Bo Diddley, James Brown, Sun Ra, and CeeLo Green.

Throughout The Dirty South, visual, material, and sonic components blend together to advance three major themes: Landscape, presenting the transformation of the southern region from a site of trauma and labor to a wellspring of life; Sinners and Saints, exploring religion, spirituality and belief systems; and Black Corporality, illustrating the Black body as a repository of tradition and knowledge.

To enhance the experience of the exhibition at Crystal Bridges visitors can access The Music of the South, six sampler playlists that highlight music from prominent cities across the southern United States: Atlanta, Hampton Roads, Va.; Houston, Memphis, Miami and New Orleans. A spotlight on material culture unique to Crystal Bridges invites visitors to interact with touch tables highlighting four key artworks.

A video playing in exhibition entrance features Northwest Arkansas community members reflecting on what the “dirty South” means to them. The personal experiences of Arkansans illuminate the various ways Black culture has impacted and shaped Arkansas’ identity.

To offer a fully immersive experience around the exhibition, July 15-17 Crystal Bridges will host a multi-day celebration of The Dirty South bringing together hip-hop artists, poets, scholars, and curators to express and reflect on the history and influences behind a century of Black culture. Live concerts over the weekend will feature performances by celebrated artists (to be announced) at both the Momentary and Crystal Bridges.

Tickets to the exhibition are $12 for adults and may be purchased online. Entry is free to members, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants, veterans and youth 18 and under.

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

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ZEEK TAYLOR