The Dirty South exhibition at the VMFA documents 100 years of Black southern expression, from the church to the dance floor. Hip Hop Henry checked it out and brought us a detailed report.
If you have been on or around Arthur Ashe Blvd lately, I’m sure you have seen signs or billboards featuring a Cadillac grille with the words “Dirty South” on it. The signs were to let the city know about the newest exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), which is dedicated to the South and its musical and cultural contributions. Recently I went to the exhibit with the magazine crew and found myself honestly amazed by the creativity of the art. As someone whose family comes from South Carolina and Hopewell VA, I was also blown away by the way it resonated with me personally.
The Dirty South exhibit highlights one hundred years of Black expression in the southern United States. There is a lot of artwork and different forms of media in the exhibit, and of course, the standouts for me were the direct tie-ins to southern music culture. When you go downstairs, the first visual you get is a video clip of a child on a swing while the sound of Billie Holiday and Jill Scott singing “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” from the groundbreaking 1939 anti-racist song “Strange Fruit,” play in the background.
The connection between the Black experience and music is on display immediately. “Take It to the Bridge” by Kevin Sipp displays what looks like an African drum being connected to a turntable by a tree branch like an umbilical cord, depicting the drum gave life to all the music that we have grown up with and love.
The history of Christianity and Black people in this country is highlighted throughout. The Sinners and Saints section showcases the intersection faith and music, and the conflict that some Black southerners faced; who else had parents who didn’t allow secular music in the house?
Pieces in this section include “Til Earth and Heaven Ring” by Sonya Clark; a player piano off in the corner of the room with the sheet music to the Black American National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson; and a recreated Liberty Bell on the wall above the piano.
Two standout pieces are Nadine Robinson’s “Coronation Theme: Organon” and Rodney McMillian’s “From Asterisks in Dockery.” “Coronation Theme” has been seen numerous times before in other media sites and on the internet; it depicts a gang of speakers in the shape of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. used to preach. It could easily be an album cover. Based on “the birthplace of the Blues,”
“From Asterisks In Dockery” is inspired by Dockery Farm in Mississippi, which was once a cotton plantation. McMillian’s red vinyl, hand sewn piece is in the form of an early 20th Century Black church. The entire piece is deep red, from the walls to the pews, pulpit, and cross. The Black church acts as the anchor for the whole Sinners and Saints wing of the Dirty South exhibit, from paintings of people falling from the heavens to depictions of people praising The Lord. It made me think of OutKast’s video for “So Fresh and So Clean,” where the hangout spot at the end of the clip was the place where almost all of our music was birthed: the church.
As you move through the exhibit, you begin to see more hip-hop culture being shown. There’s a tribute painting to Houston legend DJ Screw by El Franco Lee II, featuring a who’s who of Down South emcees hailing from Houston. On the wall is one of the most famous quotes in all of hip-hop: “The South Got Something to Say.” This was originally said by Andre 3000 during the Source Awards in the Summer of 1995, and boy was he right. The exhibit covers 100 years of the Black experience, so of course you get to see video clips and performances from Down South legends, including the aforementioned DJ Screw, as well as James Brown, Cee-Lo Green, Sun-R,a and Richmond’s own Mad Skillz, whose beat machine is on display in the exhibit. There has always been a conversation around the question “How south is Virginia?,” especially when it comes to hip-hop, but the Confederate flags that people put up alongside all of the major highways into Richmond should help you figure that out.
When you first walk into the VMFA, you see a Cadillac Brougham on display. My cousin and I used to ride around in an Oldsmobile, so I knew what time it was. From that first introduction to the maps at the end showcasing major Southern cities and their musical contributions, the Dirty South exhibit does a great job at showing the many different ways we all grew up in this region, while also documenting our shared experiences.
At the end of the exhibit, you can sit and watch a video which encompasses the whole exhibit, showing video clips of everything that is the Black experience in America, not just the South. From Olympics highlights to Miles Davis, from Michael Jordan to President Obama and even twerking, all while Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” plays throughout. There are clips that will make you laugh, cry, and think. The highlighting of our struggles and triumphs, the good and the bad — the majority is good — shows just how much our culture and contributions to this country have impacted everyone.
Additional Photo Credits: Landon Shroder, Parker Galore, John Reinhold – RVA Magazine