Groundbreaking Exhibit Takes a Panoramic Look at a Century of Southern Black Culture

Fahamu Pecou, “Dobale to the Spirit” (2017), acrylic on canvas (courtesy Fahamu Pecou)

As part of Crystal Bridges’ 10th anniversary season, the museum presents “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse.” Drawing from works created throughout the last 100 years, the exhibit is a celebration and reclamation of southern Black culture.  

The exhibit is organized by award-winning curator Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. 

“The Dirty South” embraces what it means to be southern, through the artistic impulse and influence of southern Black culture in the last century.  

“To understand the South is the gateway to America,” said Cassel Oliver in the exhibition’s opening lecture at Crystal Bridges.  

Cassel Oliver described how the variety of voices and works — which includes everything from paintings to cars, sculptures to costumes, instruments to ephemera — tells this story as ensemble: “There are a lot of conversations that are taking place and were taking place in the time they were created, but . . . they are also taking place as a call-and-response, when you have these artists sitting next to one another,” she explained.  

There’s an intergenerational aspect too, artists looking forward, looking back, commenting on similar issues. “There is a chorus and they do happen over time, and that’s the beauty, that they seamlessly meld together,” she said.  

Among the artists are Beverly Buchanan, Alma Thomas, Bethany Collins, Minnie Evans, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall, Fahamu Pecou and many others.  

Music, specifically southern hip-hop, is a defining feature of the exhibit. From July 15 through 17, Crystal Bridges hosts a multi-day event with musicians, poets, scholars and curators. There will also be live concerts that weekend at both the Momentary and Crystal Bridges. “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” continues through July 25 at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way, Bentonville, Ark. For more information, crystalbridges.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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