The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, examines the aesthetic and musical traditions of southern Black culture in the past century, influences now common throughout the American South and contemporary American art and culture.
In an immersive experience that engages multiple senses, The Dirty South spotlights the southern landscape through its musical heritage, spiritual complexity, and regional swagger. The exhibition features works of sculpture, paintings, works on paper, assemblage, textiles, and music as well as ephemera from music culture, including instruments, music videos, costumes, lyrics, and personal effects. Ultimately, The Dirty South creates an engaging opportunity to experience a deeper understanding of the African American South and its undeniable imprint on the history of American art.
This exhibition explores the relationship between music and visual art in Black southern expression from 1920–2020, highlighting a narrative of persistence and power. The sonic impulse is present in all musical genres, from spirituals, gospel music, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and the rise of southern hip-hop—a genre that gave new meaning to the term “dirty south.” Artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Sun Ra, and CeeLo Green are featured through sound and personal effects.
The evolution of these musical forms also emerges in material culture featured in the exhibition including a SLAB, grillz, and stage costumes. An intergenerational group of visual artists including Beverly Buchanan, Alma Thomas, Bethany Collins, Minnie Evans, Kara Walker, Bill Traylor, Rita Mae Pettway, Sanford Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Elizabeth Catlett and many more are placed in dialogue with one another, weaving academically trained artists with “intuitive intellectuals,” or folk artists. The intersections enable viewers to see the varied approaches to material as well as a broad range of visual art expressions shaped across time and geography.
The Dirty South is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.