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“The Dirty South” at VMFA Offers Important Historical, Social, and Cultural Lessons

It’s fitting that the instant you walk down the steps to the VMFA exhibition, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, you hear the haunting lyric of Bille Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Next you see

Valerie Cassel Oliver stands before “Caspera” by RaMell Ross. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, National Endowment for the Arts Fund for American Art. Photo by Sandra Sellars © 2021 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

the pyramid of monitors featuring images of the iconic jazz singer in 1939, Jill Scott performing the song in 2015, and a Black child wistfully swinging on a swing. In “Summer Breeze,” the artist Paul Stephen Benjamin poses

contemplative questions regarding Black culture and history. You can walk right by “Summer Breeze” or you can get lost in it.

Moving. Powerful. Eclectic. Joyful. Wrenching.

The artistic breadth of this collection, organized by VMFA and curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, who is the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, makes it next to impossible to settle on a handful of words to describe it. Exploring the aesthetic legacy of 20th-century Black culture in the South, the groundbreaking exhibition has it all: painting, sculpture, photography, music, and film.

Welcome to The Dirty South.

One of the works in The Dirty South is a textile collage by Jamal Cyrus. When Cyrus began tearing jeans apart in his studio, he said he wasn’t sure what would come of it. Formed from denim strips, “A Witness” is scaled to the size of a document. Its patches represent redacted sections of FBI files from a case in which Fannie Lou Hamer, voting rights activist and civil rights leader, provided witness testimony.

Many of the works of The Dirty South, by Cyrus and other contemporary artists, are layered with historical and social messages sent across genres and over the course of a century. 

Encompassing everything from car culture to religion to HBCUs to James Brown, as the exhibition interweaves visual and sonic installations, you can literally hear what’s coming around the corner. When I stepped into a room with thirty speakers stacked from floor to ceiling, I heard a sonic portrait of the demonstration in 1963 in Alabama, during which hundreds of families were attacked by dogs and fire-hosed by police for peacefully protesting segregation. The work notably includes a coronation anthem by German composer George Frideric Handel, which gives the pieces its name – Coronation Theme: Organon. Moments later, when a group of middle schoolers entered the room, they were in awe of the tower of speakers. I’m not sure they knew what they were listening to.

The Dirty South creates a meta-understanding (an understanding of how things are understood) of Black southern expression – through visual arts, material culture, and music. It’s this combination of genres and their presentation in the VMFA space that makes The Dirty South so compelling. Whether you pore over every artist statement and information tag or amble through without reading, you’ll spend anywhere from forty-five minutes to an hour-and-a-half in the exhibition, especially if you have your children with you, which I recommend. 

In case you were wondering about your next good reason to invest in a membership to VMFA, wonder no more. The Dirty South runs through September 5. It’s the temporary exhibit at the internationally renowned art museum on Arthur Ashe Boulevard we all should be exploring monthly – at least. And this summer, it’s your next logical reason to tell everyone you know to visit VMFA. When you purchase a membership, not only do you get free admission to world-class exhibits like The Dirty South this summer, but you’re also privy to member preview events, special member events, discounts on classes, concerts, and dining, free parking, and more. 

In the meantime, tickets to The Dirty South are $12 for adults; $10 for seniors 65+, youth seven to seventeen, and college students with ID. The exhibition is free for children under six, state employees, teachers, healthcare workers, first responders, and active-duty military personnel and their immediate families. For tickets, hours, and programming related to The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, visit VMFA. 

Commonwealth of Virginia employees, preschool and K–12 teachers (public and private), as well as active-duty military personnel and their immediate families can receive free admission to The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) now through September 6, 2021. Details here.


Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.

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