The Dirty South makes visible the roots of Southern hip hop culture and reveals how the aesthetic traditions of the African American South have shaped visual art and musical expression over the last 100 years.
Echoing from New York to Los Angeles in the 1980s, the musical genre of hip hop became, for many, the empowering language of the voiceless. In the mid-1990s, André 3000 of the Atlanta-based duo OutKast, proclaimed, “The South got something to say!” André’s clarion call shone a light into a centuries-old repository of rich Southern aesthetic traditions rooted in the fraught histories of this nation while centering the South as a vital contributor to the rich musical genre of hip hop. While the expression “Dirty South” is codified within the culture of Southern hip hop music, it encompasses a much broader understanding of the geography, history, and culture of the Black South. The Dirty South explores the traditions, aesthetic impulses, and exchanges between the visual and sonic arts over the last century. Featuring a multi-generational group of artists working across a wide range of media—including sculpture, painting, film, photography, and sound—The Dirty South presents more than 130 works and spans the entire Museum.
The African American South is testament to both the persistence and regenerative strength of tradition. The evolution of its sonic and visual output, guided by both academically trained artists and other aesthetically astute artists whose creative visions were honed through family and community experiences, stands as proof. The rich exchange between these disciplines has helped foster an understanding of the South as a place where troubled and complex histories continue to dog society into the present even as it has allowed room—under unyielding persistence—for Black bodies not simply to survive but to thrive.
While the exhibition is expansive in scope, it has deep roots in Houston. Artists hailing from Texas and Houston are prevalent in The Dirty South. From the historic significance of Earlie Hudnall, Jr., Mel Chin, and John Biggers, to contemporary works from established and mid-career artists such as Jamal Cyrus, Robert Hodge, Deborah Roberts, Robert Pruitt, El Franco Lee II, Jason Moran, and Nathaniel Donnett, The Dirty South shines a powerful light on artists who call Texas home. Crossing generations, genres, and disciplines, the featured works illuminate the historical roots and expansive narratives that frame Black experiences. Yet, common themes emerge from these disparate sonic and visual expressions that speak collectively of the forces that have shaped and sustained Black communities and cultures throughout the decades: the refuge of landscape—natural and man-made; an enduring system of spiritual beliefs and philosophies foundational to both sacred and secular thought; and the Black body itself. The exhibition’s massive Cabinet of Wonder contains musicians’ stage wear, instruments, and ephemera, including Bo Diddley’s guitar, outfits worn by James Brown and CeeLo Green, Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, and original DJ Screw “grey tapes.
The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse is organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) and curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art (formerly Curator/Senior Curator at CAMH for 16 years). Its presentation at CAMH is coordinated by Patricia Restrepo, Assistant Curator.