The exhibit, affectionately titled “The Dirty South,” was one of the most talked-about and lauded art offerings of 2021. Debuting at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the show made a bold stand on behalf of a region of the country long overlooked for its contributions to contemporary art in the United States.
“Dirty South” was a landmark in every way. It not only changed the expected geography of contemporary art exhibitions, but also expanded their currently usual time frame, reaching back a century to tell the story of how visual art, music, identity politics and social reliance came together, for to outline black culture in the American South.
That broad focus is especially clear when the show hits the road, currently landing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. Museum-goers accustomed to encountering art created in the extreme present by emerging global names will instead find a historical overview. Oil paintings made in the 1940s sit next to video installations created in the last decade.
No doubt they’ll also see works by artists they’ve never heard of – and would never have guessed – if curator Valerie Cassell Oliver hadn’t done the research to make this show’s case so compelling. This is not a superstar-driven outing. Instead, it introduces us to people like Minnie Evans, who was born in 1892 and used crayons and pencil to make spiritually oriented nature drawings inspired by the landscape of Early Gardens in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she worked as a porter. He re-introduces us to artists like Charles Henry Alston, an important and now overlooked figure of the Harlem Renaissance, whose work is represented here in a 1952 oil titled The Blues Singer.
In fact, the music is what ties this show together. Pop fans know the term “Dirty South” as a hip-hop movement that emerged in the 1990s with the breakthrough of artists such as Ludacris, Outkast and Timbaland. This wave of musicians made way for places like Memphis, Houston and Atlanta in a creative and commercial landscape dominated by artists on the east and west coasts of the country.
Curator Oliver expands this regionally based genre beyond music. The full title of this show is “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” and it aims to show where music comes from and how it relates to things like painting, photography, architecture, and digital works that come before, during and after this late 20th century boom.
Oliver formulates this lesson in three ways. The first is related to the land and its influence on this art over time. Needless to say, this is a complex concept in a place where countless enslaved people were forced to work this land while sustaining their physical and emotional selves from its bounty—and the work here illustrates that conflict.
Some are quite unsettling to watch, most notably Alison Yanae Hamilton’s 2019 video, “Wacissa,” which greets and burbles visitors near the MCA’s entrance. For the piece, Hamilton dragged his camera above and below the surface of the Watcissa River, part of Florida’s slave canal, where captives dug mud channels to carry cotton grown by other captives upstream.
The video’s visual perspective shifts uncomfortably, jarringly, while a haunting musical soundtrack plays in the background. Yet there are qualities of both beauty and enchantment in the flora and fauna and fluidity of the river itself, an eternity of flow that layers ripples of resilience over the tides and traumas of the video.
The second section of the exhibition explores the relationship between creativity and spirituality, defined broadly to encompass belief systems, secular and sacred. The church, we are reminded here, is inescapable of culture.
These connections are lively and strong, and also unsettling, as embodied by Nadine Robinson’s 2008 Coronation Theme: Organon, a tower of audio speakers fashioned into a sculpture resembling the facade of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. Loudspeakers blare as George Frederick Handel’s coronation theme gives way to documentary-style sounds recorded during civil rights protests where demonstrators were attacked with dogs and fire hoses.
Church also inspired earthier things like blues music, as Rodney McMillian’s 2012 installation Asterisks in Dockery (Blues for Smoke) points out. The piece is a life-size reproduction of a chapel at Dockery Farm in Mississippi, a cotton plantation often called the birthplace of the blues. Visitors to the museum can walk inside, sit on a bench, and contemplate religious and material things and the spaces that exist in between.
The latter part of the show examines corporeality, or the influence of the Black Body on black magic, and the emotional range of the work is wide. On one side are Sheila Pree Bright’s portraits of black men showing front teeth adorned with precious stones and precious metals. On the other side is Bethany Collins’ series of relief prints that recreate advertisements published in post-emancipation newspapers that show freed people desperately searching for relatives who were separated from them during enslavement.
This quality of light and dark permeates all of The Dirty South and the story it weaves around the creation of black culture over the many years it traces. The show cannot escape the dominant feature of this narrative, the enslavement of human beings and the legacy of discrimination and abuse that followed and continues to this day.
Still, there is something rich and gratifying about this exhibition. I don’t mean to say it’s hopeful because it’s too tidy; the show shatters as much hope as it raises. We see history repeating itself, in different forms, over the centuries. But not everything is academic.
This is probably because it documents how creative expression survives, even thrives, regardless of what current events are happening around it. If there’s optimism in these rooms—and I think there is—it doesn’t come from revisiting this survival and flourishing of people; it comes from a testimony to the resilience of art itself.
And not just any art, but art of a particular place, born of particular circumstances, which is unique from the art of all other places.
If you go
“The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sound Impulse”: runs through Feb. 5 at MCA, 1485 Delgany St. Info: 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org.
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