Art meets its soundtrack in “The Dirty South”

Entirely sound, The Sims’ piece is based on a single familiar song, “Dixie”, composed for pre-Civil War minstrel shows and intended to poke fun at the clichés of the “happy” lives of black slaves. (Its lyricists may be black.) Later, with modified verses, it became the National Anthem of Confederation, then the canonical expression of Lost Cause nostalgia in the Jim Crow era. Sims doesn’t rewrite the song; it simply records that it is performed by black musicians in a range of black music styles – gospel, blues, soul, hip-hop – undermining, by brilliant appropriation, its white supremacist punch.

His piece is particularly effective installed where it is: in a Confederate memorial chapel from 1897 which still stands on the museum grounds. Indeed, the immediate neighborhood is saturated with Confederate culture. The headquarters of the United Daughters of Confederation is located, a chunky block of white Georgian marble, right next to the museum. Monument Avenue, a residential thoroughfare once dotted with statues of Confederate heroes, is nearby. (As of 2020, all but one of the heroes, Robert E. Lee, have been trucked out.)

The term “Dirty South” can refer to a lot of things, including a morally tainted story. All the art in the VMFA exhibit, although much of it recent, has its roots in such a history. And while the show will travel to other venues in other cities, it has a special resonance here.

The dirty South: contemporary art, material culture and sound impulse

Until September 6, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, (804) 340-1400,

The exhibition travels to the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, from October 23, 2021 to February 21, 2021. 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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