Art Meets Its Soundtrack Deep in ‘The Dirty South’

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Entirely sonic, the Sims piece is based on a single familiar song, “Dixie,” composed for pre-Civil War minstrel shows and meant to mock clichés of “happy” Black slave life. (It’s possible that its lyricists were Black.) Later, with altered verses, it became the national anthem of the Confederacy, and then the canonical expression of Lost Cause nostalgia in the Jim Crow era. Sims doesn’t rewrite the song; he simply records it being performed by Black musicians in a range of Black music styles — gospel, blues, soul, hip-hop — undercutting, through genius appropriation, its white supremacist punch.

His piece is particularly effective installed where it is: in an 1897 Confederate Memorial Chapel that still stands on the museum’s grounds. Indeed, the immediate neighborhood is saturated in Confederate culture. The headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy sits, a squat block of white Georgia marble, directly beside the museum. Monument Avenue, a residential thoroughfare once dotted with statues of Confederate heroes, is close by. (Since 2020, all the heroes but one, Robert E. Lee, have been trucked away.)

The term “Dirty South” can refer to many things, including a morally sullied history. All the art in the V.M.F.A. show, though largely of recent date, has roots in such a history. And although the show will be traveling to other venues in other cities, it has particular resonance seen here.

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

Through Sept. 6, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, (804) 340-1400, vmfa.museum.

The exhibition travels to the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Oct. 23, 2021-Feb. 6, 2022; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., March 12-July 25, 2022; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, Sept. 2022-Feb. 2023.

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