Crystal Bridges celebrates 100 years of Southern Black culture

Crystal Bridges celebrates 100 years of Southern Black culture

You’re swimming through water clear enough to see the green, brown and red branches and vines of plant life that inhabit it. It’s loud in the way that water can be, like a white noise of nature, but there are no voices. You come up briefly for air, passing through bubbles and ripples as you push through and carry on down the river.

At least, that’s what it feels like as you’re watching Allison Janae Hamilton’s “Wacissa,” a single-channel video that is the first thing you see when you walk into “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,” a new exhibit at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It celebrates 100 years of Southern Black culture.

Hamilton dragged her video camera through the Wacissa River in north Florida, an area that was part of the state’s Slave Canal, to give imagery to its history. Enslaved workers dug miles of navigable channels to transport products of the cotton industry.

Sound and music play a strong role in “The Dirty South,” in addition to the visual art and material objects that you might expect, such as paintings, photographs and sculptures.

“Sonic Impulse” refers to the many audio components that pull guests from one part of the exhibit to the next, says Alejo Benedetti, associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges and in-house curator of “The Dirty South.”

The exhibit opened to the public on March 12 and will be on view through July 25. It explores themes of “Southern Landscape” — both the natural and man-made; “Sinners and Saints,” a religious and spiritual exploration; as well as “Black Corporality,” or the Black body in terms of its holding tradition and knowledge.

Music crops up in the “Sinners and Saints” section through Jason Moran’s “STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon,” a reconstruction of Slugs’ Saloon, an important free jazz venue in New York City’s East Village. The space includes a drum set, bass, piano, chair and jukebox. Valerie Cassel Oliver, curator of “The Dirty South,” who is the Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, said she believed it belonged in the “Sinners and Saints” section since music can be the connector of the physical and spiritual.

At the beginning of the “Black Corporality” section is a video loud and lively enough to hear from next door and make you wonder what’s coming. Rashaad Newsome’s “King of Arms” is framed by theatrical style curtains and has a gigantic golden statue that looks like a flatbill hat and adorned crown in one. On the screen is a work not unlike a music video with a marching band, color guard and a masked dancer who seems to be performing for a king.

The single-channel video “conjures the grand traditions of procession and theater … and explores themes of the Black body, ornamentation and heraldic emblems from Mardi Gras to hip-hop to voguing.”

Another area of the exhibit has a few small items that coordinate with the works of art, but these are designed to be touched and set low enough to the ground for children to reach.

A patch of blue denim with a zipper is the tactile component for Jamal Cyrus’ “A Witness,” a piece made of torn and bleached denim. Historically, denim was used as durable workwear for enslaved persons, according to the exhibit.

You can also reach out and run your fingers over a sample-sized patch of materials much like Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit,” a large construction of twigs, synthetic berries and metal over a mannequin. Cave began making soundsuits as a sort of protective armor to obscure the wearer’s race, class and gender.

A third connects to “Untitled Slab (cotton island)” by Kevin Beasley, whose “work centers on materials and their ability to evoke history.” This one points to the associations of cotton with enslavement and disenfranchised labor of African Americans.

Another piece centered on that theme is Kaneem Smith’s “The Past Is Perpetual/Weighted Feet,” which features a large cotton bale framed by iron weights with rows of iron hanging scales on either side, meant to evoke themes of trade, resistance and justice.

Sanford Biggers’ “Khemestry” is a piece that jumps right out at you.

The unique antique quilt is mounted on a wall in a three-dimensional, origami-like way with the help of birch plywood. Quilt patterns prominent in Black quilting techniques, such as “Flying Geese,” are featured in the exhibition for visitors to appreciate them as textiles and influences for other media.

This is the third iteration of the exhibit, but it’s in a more expanded capacity here, Oliver says. While “The Dirty South” was first shown in Virginia, the idea was planted in Houston.

“It became apparent to me that the younger generation who were really embracing their southernness, they found a lot of pride and felt very anchored in those histories,” Oliver said. “I asked them, ‘What’s giving you that sense to embrace being Southern?’ A lot of people pointed to southern hip hop, that it gave them a license to create narratives about what it’s like to be anchored in the South.”

That contrasted with her own experience of moving away from the South out of fear it wasn’t a place of sophistication. Oliver said she later realized that being from the South was her pair of ruby slippers, the power and authenticity that was with her all along.

Visitors shouldn’t miss the SLAB (slow, loud and bangin’) car in Crystal Bridges’ south lobby. The Cadillac was commissioned and customized by Richard FIEND Jones, a hip hop artist from New Orleans. Oliver said these cars are a method of self expression that often goes unrecognized.

“It’s hard to appreciate these as works of art because we’re too busy racializing the performativity, the loud music and the elbows sticking out,” she said. “But when you take it out of that context, you do appreciate it as a work of art.”



The Dirty South

WHEN — Through July 25

WHERE — Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, 600 Museum Way in Bentonville

COST — $12; free to members, SNAP participants, veterans and youth ages 18 and younger

INFO — 657-2335 or



Visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art can access “The Music of the South,” six sampler playlists that highlight music from prominent cities across the southern United States, including Atlanta, Hampton Roads, Va., Houston, Memphis, Miami and New Orleans.

Categories: Galleries