This Powerful Art Exhibit Proves the South Still Has Something to Say

The Dirty South makes a bold statement about the intersections between Southern culture, visual art and music.

By Amarie Gipson November 15, 2021

Valerie Cassel Oliver's exhibition, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse makes a cosmic return to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. 

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston'S (CAMH) latest effort, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse is a historic undertaking brought forth by Houston native, noted scholar and curator Valerie Cassel Oliver. 

The Dirty South, on view through February 2022, explores a century of Black visual and sonic traditions. Rooted in three central themes—landscape, religion and the Black body—the exhibition features over 140 artworks by a multigenerational roster of self-taught and academically trained artists. The exhibition made its debut at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in May 2021, and its Houston premiere marks a special homecoming. 

Here's an excerpt from Houstonia's Winter 2021 issue on stands November 30.:

For nearly two decades, Cassel Oliver has dedicated her career to championing the work of Black artists, especially those from the U.S. South. Before embarking on her role as the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the VMFA, she spent nearly 17 years as the senior curator at CAMH, where she organized an array of groundbreaking exhibitions.

Portrait of Houston-born curator and scholar Valerie Cassel Oliver, who is currently the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. 

Towards the end of her tenure, Cassel Oliver proposed a project that would investigate how hip-hop provided contemporary artists of the 1980s with what she describes as, “a real sense of self.” The exhibition idea followed her to Richmond, where she has spent the past four years deepening her research and building the VMFA’s permanent collection. 

Installation view of STAGED: Slugs’ Saloon, (2018) by Houston-born artist Jason Moran

“The power that Houston has presented to the world is so amazing. A lot of growth and cosmopolitanism was happening there and artists were bringing attention to that power and creativity. The music was giving visual artists a license to press forward,” Cassel Oliver says. Visual artists like Jason Moran, Kaneem Smith, Mel Chin, Melvin Edwards, John Biggers, Robert Hodge, and Jamal Cyrus represent the best of the city’s dexterity. 

The exhibition's "Cabinet of Wonder" includes historic performance costumes, musical instruments, and ephemera. Pictured here are a photograph by Sheila Pree Bright, a gold and diamond grill by King Johnny, a sculpture by Sulton Rogers, and an assortment of DJ Screw mixtapes, and a sculpture by Houston artist Robert Pruitt. 

The Dirty South is a history sweeping tribute to the genius and ingenuity embedded within Black Southern culture, from Grillz to jazz and slabs. Undoubtedly her most ambitious project to date, the exhibition is a culmination of Cassel Oliver’s curatorial endeavors, as several of her previous shows have nourished its conception, including a number of first-rate presentations at CAMH

“There’s no one American visual narrative,” Cassel Oliver concludes. “There are multiple and some of them converge into one another. In our desire to compress and get to one, we ignore all of these other narratives that are so crucial to understanding our true selves. That was the part I wanted to get to with The Dirty South. We have to understand that the South is the American story, everything happens here.”



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