In Pictures: This Landmark Museum Show in Virginia Examines How Black Southern Art and Music Inspire One Another

The show includes around 140 works of art.

Bisa Butler, Basin Street Blues (2014). Courtesy Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein, Image © Bisa Butler. Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.
Bisa Butler, Basin Street Blues (2014). Courtesy Claire Oliver and Ian Rubinstein, Image © Bisa Butler. Courtesy Claire Oliver Gallery, New York.

The streets of Richmond, Virginia are a lesson in how the past and present converge. Statues honoring Confederate soldiers have been toppled, while Kehinde Wiley’s defiant response to the Civil War, Rumors of War, stands sentry outside the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Inside, an exhibition explores the creative output and traditions of Black artists through the lens of music and sound art.

The show, titled “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” features an intergenerational cohort of artists, some self taught, some formally trained, working in a range of media. The show gathers more than 140 sculptures, paintings, drawings, films, photographs, installations, and sound works, all intermingling in the galleries.

Upon entering the cavernous museum, visitors are drawn down a hallway where the show’s introduction is Paul Stephen Benjamin’s Summer Breeze, an installation featuring a lyric from Billie Holiday’s heart-wrenching song about lynching, Strange Fruit, projected on a video screen and filling the gallery.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The work is surrounded by other screens showing Jill Scott’s 21st-century rendition of the song, while, on a pyramid of televisions behind the singers, a young Black girl plays on a swing set.

“The confluence between the visual and sonic arts in the Black creative expression has long been recognized,” the show’s curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver, said in a press release. “What has remained elusive, particularly in the presentation of these forms, is the long trajectory of this exchange.”

“André 3000’s iconic phrase, ‘The South’s got something to say,’ really sparks for me a meditation to dig deep and to understand how Southern hip-hop artists were shaping their identity within the bedrock of the landscape that they knew and the creative expression born from the history of that landscape,” she added.

See images from the show below.

RaMell Ross<i> Caspera,</i> (2019). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Image: © RaMell Ross.

RaMell Ross Caspera, (2019). Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Image: © RaMell Ross.

John Biggers, Four Seasons (1990). © 2020 John T. Biggers Estate/ VAGA via Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Estate Represented by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.

John Biggers, Four Seasons (1990). © 2020 John T. Biggers Estate/ VAGA via Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Courtesy of Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

El Franco Lee II, DJ Screw in Heaven 2 (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

El Franco Lee II, DJ Screw in Heaven 2 (2016). Courtesy of the artist.

Rodney McMillian, From Asterisks in Dockery (2012). Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Rodney McMillian, From Asterisks in Dockery (2012). Courtesy of the artist
and Vielmetter Los Angeles.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Fahamu Pecou, Dobale to the Spirit (2017). Courtesy Fahamu Pecou, Image © Dr. Fahamu Pecou, Courtesy Studio KAWO/Fahamu Pecou Art.

Fahamu Pecou, Dobale to the Spirit (2017). Courtesy Fahamu Pecou, Image © Dr. Fahamu Pecou, Courtesy Studio KAWO/Fahamu Pecou Art.

Installation view, "The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse" at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view, “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” at the VMFA. Photo: Travis Fullerton, © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Nadine Robinson, Coronation Theme: Organon, (2008). High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Image: © Nadine Robinson

Nadine Robinson, Coronation Theme: Organon, (2008). High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Image: © Nadine Robinson


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