‘Dirty South’ Exhibition Celebrates Century of Southern Black Culture

An exhibit that combines hip hop, African American traditions and visual arts opens at Crystal Bridges this weekend.

Hip hop will soon fill the temporary exhibition gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville as the music genre provides an entry point for exploring how Black culture has influenced the South during the last 100 years. The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse opens to the public this weekend. 

“It’s thinking about hip hop as this more recent part of this much longer conversation around southern Black culture and putting all this into this larger continuum,” says Alejo Benedetti, associate curator for contemporary art at Crystal Bridges.

Benedetti is also the in-house curator for The Dirty South, which was originally conceived by Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The exhibition opened at VMFA in May 2021 and recently ended its run at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston.

“I think it’s important to say that the South is a point of origin and that you really can’t tell the American story without talking about the South,” Oliver says.

The seeds for this multidisciplinary exhibition were planted years ago when Oliver was a curator in Houston and she realized contemporary southern hip hop had given artists a license to create new narratives about what it meant to be anchored in the South.

“It became very apparent to me that there was a whole younger generation who were really embracing their southerness as Black artists, that they really found a lot of pride and a lot of groundedness, felt very anchored in those histories,” she says.

The exhibition contains a variety of mediums, including sculpture, video and audio created by artists who are academically trained as well as those who are not. Richard FIEND Jones — a.k.a. International Jones — is a New Orleans artist who falls into the latter category. He customized a SLAB — Slow, Loud And Bangin’ — car for the exhibition. The 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance with custom accessories is located in the museum’s south lobby.

In addition to hip hop, the exhibition features music from various genres including spirituals, gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz and soul. The exhibition’s sonic component acts as a guide, pulling visitors from one experience to another, Benedetti says.

The show is divided into three sections that explore the themes of landscape, spirituality and the complexity of being Black in the South. The exhibit explores a small component of history and it’s not just “a narrative about trauma and pain, but it’s been about a narrative of joy, perseverance, and creative expression,” Oliver says. 

In addition to the varied pieces of art within the exhibition, museum guests can watch a video at the exhibit’s entrance that features Northwest Arkansas residents reflecting on what the dirty South means to them. Additionally, visitors can access The Music of the South, six sampler playlists that highlight music from prominent southern cities like Atlanta, Memphis and New Orleans. 

The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse is on view Mar. 12-July 25. A multi-day celebration of the exhibition scheduled for July 15-17 will feature hip hop artists, poets, scholars and curators reflecting on the history and influences behind a century of Black culture. 

Tickets to the exhibition are $12 for adults. Entry is free to members, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients, veterans and visitors 18 and younger. More information is available at www.crystalbridges.org.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.