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


The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, examines the aesthetic and musical traditions of southern Black culture in the past century, influences now common throughout the American South and contemporary American art and culture.

In an immersive experience that engages multiple senses, The Dirty South spotlights the southern landscape through its musical heritage, spiritual complexity, and regional swagger. The exhibition features works of sculpture, paintings, works on paper, assemblage, textiles, and music as well as ephemera from music culture, including instruments, music videos, costumes, lyrics, and personal effects. Ultimately, The Dirty South creates an engaging opportunity to experience a deeper understanding of the African American South and its undeniable imprint on the history of American art.

Teacher’s Guide for The Dirty South
Parent’s Guide for The Dirty South
Guía para padres for The Dirty South

Adults: $12

Members, SNAP participants, Veterans, and Youth 18 and Under: FREE

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Image Gallery

This exhibition explores the relationship between music and visual art in Black southern expression from 1920–2020, highlighting a narrative of persistence and power. The sonic impulse is present in all musical genres, from spirituals, gospel music, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, funk, and the rise of southern hip-hop—a genre that gave new meaning to the term “Dirty South.” Artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Bo Diddley, James Brown, Sun Ra, and CeeLo Green are featured through sound and personal effects.

The evolution of these musical forms also emerges in material culture featured in the exhibition including a SLAB, grillz, and stage costumes. An intergenerational group of visual artists including Beverly Buchanan, Alma Thomas, Bethany Collins, Minnie Evans, Kara Walker, Bill Traylor, Rita Mae Pettway, Sanford Biggers, Kerry James Marshall, Elizabeth Catlett and many more are placed in dialogue with one another, weaving academically trained artists with “intuitive intellectuals,” or folk artists. The intersections enable viewers to see the varied approaches to material as well as a broad range of visual art expressions shaped across time and geography.

The Dirty South is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

A large structure of stacked black speakers, black megaphones and black cylinders towers next to a white wall
Nadine Robinson, Coronation Theme: Organon, 2008, speakers, sound system, and mixed media, 175 x 18 1/2 x 174 in. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, given by John F. Wieland, Jr. in memory of Marion Hill, 2008.175

The Dirty South Celebration Weekend

Friday, July 15 – Sunday, July 17

Immerse yourself in the sounds and stories of The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse with three days of performance, conversation, and celebration. We’re bringing hip-hop artists, poets, scholars, curators, and more in a multi-day event designed to explore the themes of The Dirty South like never before. From conversations on the history and influences behind a century of Black culture to live concerts featuring acclaimed artists, we invite you to dive deep into the aesthetics, legacy, power, and complexity of the African American South.

Learn more about what The Dirty South Weekend has in store.


Exhibition Sponsors

The Dirty South is sponsored at Crystal Bridges by Harrison and Rhonda French Family | Ramsay, Jaquita, and Sarah Ball | Catherine and Stephan Roche | Esther Silver-Parker | Deborah Wright.

This project is supported in part by a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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10th Anniversary Exhibition Season Sponsors

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Deborah Roberts, Let Them Be Children, 2018, acrylic, pastel, ink, and gouache on canvas, 46 1/2 x 141 3/4 x 2 3/8 in. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2019.1