“The Dirty South” reflects on community impact before leaving VMFA

From left: “If Bells Could Talk” by Radcliffe Bailey, “Rise of the Delta” by Whitfield Lovell and “King of Arms” by Rashaad Newsome. These art pieces are included at “The Dirty South” exhibit, which is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts until Sept. 6. Photo by Travis Fullerton

Parker Barnes, Contributing Writer

The sights and sounds of the American South, experienced between the walls of an art museum, make up “The Dirty South” exhibit, told through the lens of the Black experience in America.

The exhibit, which is on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, includes a diverse modality of art, including paintings, videos, sculptures, photography, artifacts, stages and even a room made of vinyl and other materials, resembling a church. 

The exhibit opened at the VMFA on May 22. The exhibit is entering its last week at the museum — the last day it will be available to view is Sept. 6.

Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of the exhibit, said that it has garnered immense support from the Richmond community since it first opened.

“You hope that project that you present will be impactful — but to really feel that impact in a more immediate sense, it’s really quite humbling,” Oliver said.

The art in the exhibit explores the relationship between the Black experience and the American South, including the beliefs, history and culture that define the region. 

“It’s a very honest exhibit of the Black experience, particularly in the South,” said exhibit attendee Sherrar Gardner of her first impression of “The Dirty South.”

A section in the exhibit, titled “Landscape,” explores how nature, such as the plants and geographical features in the South, creates a background that frames life in the region.

The “Sinners and Saints” section of the exhibit represents the importance of religion and heritage in the region, further illustrated through multimodal art pieces throughout this section. 

“Sinners and Saints” makes use of the immersive quality of art through a stage display, a literal “wall of sound” created by a stack of speakers. 

“The thing that stands out to me the most is that it [the exhibit] feels very honoring and celebratory, without making a spectacle out of Black suffering,” said Charles Lewis, an exhibit attendee.

“Black Corporality,” another section of the exhibit, is specifically about the complexity of the Black body, and its role in carrying on traditions and culture.

This section introduces hip-hop and its relationship to other genres of music, as well as its place within Black culture.

According to Oliver, a relationship between visual and sonic art is prevalent in this exhibit and is reflected in the artists themselves, which he said helps expand on the Black experience.

“What I hear from people is just that they feel a sense of openness, vulnerability, awareness,” Oliver said.

These same raw feelings are evident throughout and can be seen in the variety of artist backgrounds, ranging from trained professionals to casual artists.

“I wanted a range of visual art expression, not just contemporary, not just academically trained artists, but people who are closer to the ground,” Oliver said.

“The Dirty South” will only be on display at the VMFA until Sept. 6 before it is displayed in other museums around the country. 

“It’s bittersweet, but it isn’t meant to last forever,” Oliver said.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply