The current exhibit at the Nasher Museum on Duke’s campus, “Southern Accent” , is tremendous and awe-inspiring. It is epic in its scale and approach. It had to be. It is well nigh impossible to approach the last seventy years of Southern History through the visual arts and not tell an epic tale.
“Southern Accent” says it is “seeking the American South in Contemporary Art”.
Most are more familiar with the literary art than the visual art of the South. And who would argue that Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With Wind aspired for anything less than epic scale? Whitman could have been referring to The South when he said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
There is so much to the South, you might say. This could be true of anywhere, but as Americans, we are more familiar with the tropes of Southern regionalism than those of any other part of culture and country. It is rolled into our American character that we have this distinct region called, “The South” — and the concomitant baggage that accompanies it. (I won’t list the sins or the stereotypes. Consider what leaps to you own mind, when you conjure up “The South”.)
Exhibit Curators, Trevor Schoonmaker and Miranda Lash, pulled no punches. This exhibit puts The South on display through the work of a myriad of talented artists. The range of the exhibit is incredibly broad. Nasher curated a 200 song musical catalog of The South to accompany “Southern Accent”. Nasher found ways to display multiple short films.
Locally, the most powerful of those for me was Michael Galinsky’s “The Day the KKK Came to Town”. This 4 minute and 12 second series of black and white photos was shot on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill in 1987. Those words chill my soul as I type them. The accompanying sound was recorded on the day of the parade in interviews by Brandon Utley and Jeff Robbins. Galinsky, only a teenager at the time he snapped these pics,1 captured a streetscape that is hauntingly familiar to most locals who have been in Durham for a spell. You will see a Franklin Street you recognize. You will see it disfigured by KKK marchers. You will hear voices of the community reacting. You will remember it was less than 30 years ago.
Then you will step back out into the Nasher and “Southern Accent” vibrating, as it dawns on you that there a hundred plus other works in this show.
Chris Vitiello got it right when he wrote in the Indy Week, “the exhibition has an overall gravity on par with a visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.”
Right around the corner from Galinksy’s film, a subtle series of photos by Jessica Ingram document more of the inflammatory racist history of the South. Seemingly innocent portraits of buildings include photos like, “Law Office, Pulaski, Tennessee.”
It is only when you read the description of the photo that it is revealed, this is the very space where the KKK was founded on Christmas Eve, 1865. The historical marker seen in the photo has been flipped backward, its inscription facing in, but not removed.
Ingram’s other photos in the exhibit capture Stone Mountain, Georgia, and a Mississippi swamp, and the site of Vernon Dahmer’s Murder – a field of flowers.
Less subtle, but equally haunting is Gordon Parks, “Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama”.
This image, a photograph from 1956, makes me want to cry right now. Little black children stand outside a chain-link fence looking in at an all-white space. White kids frolic on a playground, there is a white’s only swimming pool, and even a Ferris wheel. I recently read a fascinating and simultaneously terrifying history of the all-white pools of Nashville, Tennessee.
In 1961, Nashville closed all of its city pools for three years rather than integrate them. State collective punishment rather than compliance. Shudder. And you think the story’s over, but its ready to begin. Henceforth, the predominant pool spaces in Nashville, including as the white author Erin E. Tocknell notes, the pool she grew up going to, were private spaces. Exclusive. Whether at country clubs or via neighborhood associations. The shared spaces were never recovered. It is a harrowing tale.
And from what I hear about our once thriving Durham public pools, a tale with some resonance locally.
What am I now? Three pieces into “Southern Accent”?
Did I tell you about Sally Mann’s Antietam? It is an untitled black and white silver gelatin print, shot at night on the site of the Civil War battlefield. Raised humps in the landscape are trenches where humans fought and died over The South.
Or Deborah Luster’s “Sunday Morning from the Lost Roads Project” which Schoonmaker, Lash, and the Nasher juxtaposed against Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” a Confederate Battle Flag that Clark is actively deconstructing? Literally taking it apart thread by thread.2
See this work continue in person tomorrow, Thursday, October 20th at 7pm at the Nasher Museum of Art.
Yes, there are attempts to make the exhibit lighter and whimsical, to show the history of The South is more than just pain. When I took the pre-exhibit tour on behalf of the Clarion Content, one of the works to which everyone gravitated was Burke Uzzle’s photographs of Vollis Simpson’s Whirlygigs. If you know the story of Vollis Simpson and his amazing homemade art and space, and Wilson, North Carolina, you know why. If you don’t know the story, watch this. And luxuriate.
Curators Miranda Lash and Trevor Schoonmaker made great attempts to be broad. I was particularly impressed by the inclusion of Diego Camposeco, a twenty-four year-old Hispanic photographer from Burgaw, North Carolina. Here Schoonmaker and Lash underlined a reality we know to be true at the Clarion Content and in Durham: Hispanic culture is an important (and underexplored) part of contemporary Southern culture.
“Southern Accent” also showcased Catherine Opie’s amazing series, “Domestic”, documenting Southern lesbian couples in photography.
“Southern Accent” has remarkable breadth see: Robert Colescott’s “Choctaw Nickel” and Jeffrey Gibson’s “I Put a Spell on You”- lest we forget the native American element in The South.
The South is epic. “Southern Accent” is epic. I find it remarkable that an institution that can sometimes be as hidebound and traditional as Duke is putting this work on display.3
An epic is something that can only be seen in chunks. The grandest and longest tapestries cannot weave the entire narrative. I just finished reading Out of Africa, an epic story in its own right. Karen Blixen known by her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, wrote about Africa through a series of portraits, tales, narrative snippets. In effort to disseminate the epic of a continent, she gave us nuggets. I would argue Schoonmaker, Lash, and “Southern Accent” do the same. The only way to see the whole is through the parts. This is by no means criticism. This is an inevitable consequence of attempting to document something huge. Schoonmaker, Lash, and the Nasher do it with tremendous verve and guts.4
Each of us then, is charged with taking home these portraits, these slivers, these memes, and internalizing them into our own consciousness of The South, our world, our history, and most importantly, our own forward going behavior.
I like to say, “Art is at the nexus of change.”
“Southern Exhibit” is an opportunity for said theory to be shown true, especially in an era of #BlackLivesMatter and wider social unrest.
On my fourth visit to the Nasher to see “Southern Accent”, I ran into Durham artist, Candy Carver, who summed up this angle well. She said (referring to “Southern Accent”) “It’s about the conversation. And that’s what’s more important [than the individual works]. It makes your eyes want to talk.”
Artist Beverly Buchanan’s whose tiny shacks are exhibited in “Southern Accent” nailed it when she said, “It is the spirit that comes through the forms.”
And as Richard J. Powell, the Dean of the Humanities and the John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art & Art History at Duke University notes in the gorgeous and weighty exhibit catalog, “Southern Accent reaches for something in the art world that is debatably there — elements or qualities of a distinct cultural region of the United States that manifest themselves in recent works of art — but, nonetheless, remains elusive to codification. More timid gallerists or museum curators would have avoided this inquiry all together, for fear of not getting it right in the eyes of the public, but Trevor Schoonmaker and Miranda Lash are neither reticent nor frightened…”
Get to this exhibit, Durham!
I would argue “Southern Accent” is an especially important exhibit to bring young people to, given the rarity of attempts to look comprehensively at the visual art of The South across a dynamic period like the last seventy years. It means let them skip school if you have to. This is history.
Remember the Nasher is free on Thursday nights.
There are also a slew of associated events.
And a ton of additional content. I didn’t even get into the audio catalog. And the Nasher’s amazing staff is doing a series of podcasts with the artists that is netting gems like, “The South is not a monolith.”
This in mind, truly, I recommend visiting the exhibit, “Southern Accent” more than once. Let it wash over you. If you feel emotionally overwhelmed at some points, walk away, and come back another day.
Rachel Boillot’s “Post Script” series was personally deeply evocative.
1 Save everything good you shoot, write, paint, etc.
2 The embedded meaning of this project, which will continue at the Nasher tomorrow evening October 20th, hints at the epic depth of “Southern Accent”.
from an interview of the artist, Sonya Clark, by Wendy Hower
“Racial injustice is something that every American contends with, either consciously or unconsciously, and it’s so deeply embedded in the fabric of our nation,” she says. “The word ‘racism’ is sort of like a trigger word; you know, it can shut people’s ears off, shut people down, bring people’s defense mechanisms up. So I’m less interested in that, and more interested in picking apart and undoing and understanding the fabric of our nation and trying to really understand the roots of racial injustice.”
Clark has worked as a textile and fiber artist for a long time, she says. “Unless you study textiles, you don’t understand that much about them. They are always touching our bodies, they absorb how we smell, they keep us warm, they keep us cool–but most people don’t even know how cloth is made.”
For her work “Unraveling”, Clark chose a high-quality flag woven from thick, sturdy cotton and stitched together to last. In gallery performances, she invites visitors to work with her side-by-side to unravel the flag, carefully taking it apart thread by thread. Together they dismantle about half an inch in an hour, creating piles of red, white and blue thread. “It takes a really long time. It’s serious work.”
The cloth becomes a metaphor, something very familiar that is investigated and picked apart, she says. “Just slowing down, to think about what has happened here. It took years for us to make the Confederate flag. It’s not going to be an easy thing for us to undo.”
from an interview of the artist by Wendy Hower
See this work continue in person tomorrow Thursday, October 20th at 6pm at the Nasher Museum of Art.
3 Nasher is considered ahead of the curve of collecting African-American Art, particularly because of Schoonmaker’s interest. It was remarkable: here we were, standing in a museum with an exhibit celebrating African-American Art, on the campus where the African-American architect of Duke’s Georgian buildings, Julian Francis Abele, was once unable to see his own work. As the Director of Engagement and Marketing at the Nasher, Wendy Hower said, “We are lucky to live here and now.” And credit to J Caldwell, the online community coordinator and photographer at the Nasher Museum since , for pointing it out to me.
4 If I did have a criticism of “Southern Accent” it would be; why the inclusion of two Andy Warhol works? What is it with contemporary curators’ Warhol worship? The Pittsburgh-born Warhol is a New Yorker. Both of his works included mock The South. In “Birmingham Race Riot, 1964” Warhol’s misnamed rip-off of Charles Moore’s original photograph attempts to commodify a tragic moment of violence by authority, turning fire hoses and dogs on orderly and unarmed protestors, into a screenprint that Warhol can sell to his trendy collector friends. His mocking silk screen of Dolly Parton follows the same path, an unsentimental outsider sneers at The South while simultaneously attempting to collect on his barbs. Warhol, was not only unnecessary, but entirely inappropriate. The subsequently disappointing ramification was when on one of my visits to the exhibit I overheard a young, blonde student, likely a Duke undergraduate exclaim, “Oh, it’s Andy Warhol, that’s awesome.” Responding in just the way Warhol inspires, noting his brand name as a verification of quality requiring no more than cursory examination of the work.
My one other minor criticism of “Southern Accent” would be that work about and by New Orleans artists appears to be over-represented, perhaps because it is on Schoonmaker’s mind or in his heart since his new job is for Prospect New Orleans. Lash also recently left the New Orleans Museum of Art. Works by and about New Orleans trump works from any other large southern city. There is even a separate section of Katrina related work. Moving, no doubt. Art scholars far more knowledgeable than me can tell you if such emphasis was warranted.
It did not detract from the monumental scale and wonder of a tremendous show.