‘The Dirty South’ explores contemporary Black culture through the frame of music

“Caspera” by RaMell Ross, 2020, archival pigment print, 49 1/2 x 61 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, National Endowment for the Arts Fund for American Art. Image credit and copyright: RaMell Ross.

As you walk into the exhibit “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” on display at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, you are greeted immediately by the sound of a babbling stream and an equally peaceful and chaotic video of a camera being dragged through the waterway.

The piece, “Wacissa” by Allison Janae Hamilton, shows the beauty of the river, a popular kayaking destination in the Florida panhandle. But it also speaks to origins unknown to many who might enjoy the waters. The Wacissa River area is connected to Florida’s Slave Canal, a slave-built shipping channel constructed to expedite the transportation of cotton.

The journey through “The Dirty South” features many such moments. “Let Them Be Children” by Deborah Roberts, for instance, shows a collage of children at play. But a glance at their faces shows pensive or concerned looks on each of them.

Organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where it was on display before making the trip to Bentonville, “The Dirty South” showcases “the aesthetic legacies and traditions of Black culture in the African American South as seen through the lens of contemporary Black musical expression,” the VMFA said in a press release announcing the exhibit.

The Dirty South:
Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse

When: Through July 25
Where: Crystal Bridges, Bentonville
Cost: $12; free for youth 18 and under, service veterans and museum members
Information and tickets: Call 479-418-5700 or crystalbridges.org

Through more than 100 works of art spanning videos, audio segments, photographs and paintings, the collection discusses religion, the southern landscape and our treatment of Black bodies. It includes works by celebrated artists such as Alma Thomas and Kerry James Marshall, but also by lesser-known contemporary artists.

Highlights include Jason Moran’s “STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon,” a recreation of a famous jazz bar in New York City; Kara Walker’s “A Warm Summer Evening in 1863,” depicting the hanging of a young black girl; and a Cabinet of Wonders featuring ephemera like one of Ornette Coleman’s saxophones and a stage outfit worn by James Brown.

As music is critical to “The Dirty South,” it culminates in a weekend of music and exploration of the themes of the exhibit.

Headlined by a July 16 concert by Run the Jules and Big Boi, the Dirty South Celebration Weekend also features an artist talk by visual artist Nick Cave. One of Cave’s “Soundsuit” creations is on view as part of the exhibit.

“The Dirty South” is on view through July 25.

The Dirty South Celebration Weekend

In association with ‘The Dirty South,’ Crystal Bridges and The Momentary will host three days of performances and conversation featuring hip-hop artists, poets, scholars and curators. The exhibit itself will be free to attend during the weekend, but individual performances may require tickets.

Highlights of the celebration include:
July 15 – Music by Danny Simmons, Vernon Reid and Dwayne Dolphin (8:30 p.m.)
July 16 – Artist talk with Nick Cave (2 p.m.)
July 16 – SLAB Car Culture Conversation (3:30 p.m.)
July 16 – Concert by Run the Jewels and Big Boi (8 p.m.)

Where: Crystal Bridges and The Momentary, Bentonville
Information and tickets: Call 479-418-5700 or crystalbridges.org