The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’s ground-breaking exhibition, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, is the brainchild of curator Valerie Cassel Oliver. The show brings together several pressing themes in American culture—the essential place of African American art forms in American life and the unique dialogue between art, music and objects of everyday life found in Southern culture.
“That call and response between the visual artists and the musicians,” Oliver says in this “ARTnews Live” interview, provoked her interest in the project. The show was also born of her admiration and affection for Southern hip-hop.
“The rise of Southern hip-hop really gave a new sense of pride . . . of being Southern” she says. Looking at the genre’s videos and listening to its music, Oliver discerned three main motifs: landscape, religion, and the Black body. The exhibition is organized around these three elements.
“One of the things you see on a consistent basis,” in the videos, Oliver says, “is the landscape. Whether it’s the natural landscape, whether it’s a manmade landscape, there’s always a reference to . . . the South as a place and as a site.”
There are also many references to metaphysics within the genre, Oliver says. “Not simply religion, [but also] philosophical thought processes. There are ideas about the space between the physical world and the spiritual world. There are ideas around syncretic religious practices. There are ideas around Christianity and the duality of self: the good self, the bad self.” There are also references to understandings of the hereafter, she says, whether sacred or profane.
The third section focuses on the Black body as a retention of history, as a holder of traditions, and also as a site of trauma, as well as “a space of regenerative energies.” She says, “You can’t have an African American South if you don’t talk about the history of the body in this region.”
Oliver is also making a case for a different wellspring of Modernism in America. Instead of viewing Modern art as an import from Europe, the curator wants us to see how art forms that grew of out distinctively American conditions were also essential to forming Modernism.
“If you have blues or jazz as the American original art form,” Oliver comments, “what is the visual equivalent to that? We don’t really look always in our backyard to understand the tributaries toward modernism. But you can’t have modernism without the backyard of the South and you don’t have a South without Black culture. . . Black culture is the origins.”