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

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About the exhibition

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The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, explores the aesthetic legacies and traditions of Black Culture in the African American South as seen through the lens of contemporary Black musical expression. This groundbreaking exhibition, lauded by critics from New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, argues for the importance of the American South and Black culture as critical to our understanding of America’s past, present, and future. 

Occupying all three floors of galleries at MCA Denver, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse will make visible the roots of Southern hip hop culture and reveal how the aesthetic traditions of the African American South have shaped visual art and musical expression over the last 100 years. Beginning in the 1920s with spirituals, jazz and blues, the exhibition interweaves parallels in the visual art production of the Southern United States. This exhibition features an intergenerational group of artists working in a variety of genres from sculpture, painting and drawing to photography and film as well as sound pieces and large-scale installation works.

Presenting artworks drawing from the visual imagery found in music videos, song lyrics and cultural ephemera, The Dirty South looks deeply into the frameworks of landscape, belief systems and the Black body. Through the contributions of artists – both academically trained as well as those creative intellectuals relegated to the margins as “folk artists” – the foundational aesthetics that gave rise to the shaping of our contemporary expression are uncovered. 

Organized by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, The Dirty South features art, ephemera and sound work by artists with ties to the South. Included in the exhibition are Allison Janae Hamilton, Mose Tolliver, Rodney McMillian, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Minnie Evans, Nadine Robinson, Thornton Dial, Jr., Rashaad Newsome, Sanford Biggers, Mildred Thompson, Radcliffe Bailey, Bisa Butler, RaMell Ross, Alma Thomas, and El Franco Lee II, among many others. 

In addition to the music, the exhibition features the contemporary material culture that emerges in its wake, such as “grillz” worn as body adornment and other bodily extensions such as instruments used by celebrated Southern musicians. The exhibition will also feature commercial videos and personal effects of the industry’s most iconic artists—from Sun Ra and Cee Lo Green to Bo Diddley.

Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibition is presented at MCA Denver by Miranda Lash, Ellen Bruss Senior Curator. The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue, edited by Cassel Oliver, features an anthology of critical essays by Cassel Oliver, Fred Moten, Anthony Pinn, Regina Bradley, Rhea Combs, Guthrie Ramsey, Andrea Barwell Brownlee, Roger Reeves, Kirsten Pai Buick, Charlie Braxton and Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. This publication documents works in the exhibition as well as artists’ biographies and a chronology of iconic moments that have shaped the Black presence in the South.

Curated by
Valerie Cassel Oliver, Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

On view from
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MCA Denver thanks the citizens of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District for their support of this exhibition.