So upon walking through the doors, I am greeted with smiles and hello’s by a few VMFA workers, I pick up a brochure and I immediately see a thing of beauty… SLAB, 2021 (1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance with custom accessories) [see below]…before you even walk into the actual exhibition one has to take a drive-by (rather walk-by lol) this classic vehicle, which in many ways sets the tone.
This clean ride brings some joy into my heart and definitely made me smile. But what would come next stops me in my tracks. In the distance, I hear this faint but “chill up your spine” sound reminiscent of “Strange Fruit” sung by Billie Holiday. And as i get closer of course my ears do not deceive me at all, it’s this one lyric “Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze” on loop… One moment you hear and see Billie Holiday and then the next you hear and see Jill Scott, while simultaneously you see this video of a little Black girl on a swing enjoying the simple pleasures in life! I was like WOW, I’m just getting started and they GOT me!!
The Dirty South in so many ways is about identity, preservation, labor, expression, pain, joy, faith, tradition, and so much more. There were many moments when I would either get goosebumps or this tingle of my spine ( a couple of times I felt both) after hearing a jarring sonic sound, or gazing at an image that left me speechless. With each room I never knew what to expect, which made the exhibition like this exploratory adventure. But it was also like a Southern scavenger hunt, where I had this internal list of artists and themes that I knew I would have to find. Some of these artists/creatives that I would find included Bisa Butler, Romare Bearden, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Clementine Hunter, Fahamu Pecou, Sun Ra, Deborah Roberts, among many others!!
The Southern Black experience and culture was truly present so much so that I definitely had a few out of body moments where my spirit momentarily left, eventually making its way back to my body. So often the south gets placed into a singular box, but this exhibition made it very clear that is definitely not the case. As I always say #RepresentationMatters and that message was loud and clearly (literally and figuratively)!! Your thinking of the South will definitely be transformed. Blackness is unapologetically centered, but is enhanced by a spiritual conjuring, the regional inclusions, the Black queer voice, the labor, the children, the sonic vibrations, and the persistence of Black folks from the past all the way to the future!! So many stories, so many voices, so many points of view, just so much to take in…this was a time where I welcomed the feeling of being overwhelmed….My cup runneth over!!
Another moment worth mentioning that really made a huge impact was the way in which children were represented. I appreciated that not only did I see the pain and trauma, but also the way in which many of the images of the children were so innocent, simple and carefree. Some of the photographs like the one below took me back to my childhood days of going to church with mama and grandma and dozing off into a brief slumber on their lap, or flipping through the hymnals and singing along with the choir….ohhhh the memories.
Nothing was off limits in The Dirty South, trust you will get it all and some!! Valerie Cassel Oliver, who serves as the exhibition curator creates a playing field that hits several home runs!! You will leave having many definitions of what the south represents. And without spoiling the last feature of the exhibition, I will say this just make sure you are prepared for every emotion to seep out of your body, just make sure to release and let it go…
Mississippi, Georgia (Atlanta), Alabama, Tennessee (Memphis), Texas (Houston), Louisiana (New Orleans), Florida (Miami) even parts of Africa and the galaxy have space in the The Dirty South exhibition. So if you have a chance, or you will be in the Richmond area it would be worth your while to stop by and check out this amazing aesthetic, cultural, and sonic experience!!
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse will be at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through September 6th, 2021.