Art Meets Soundtrack on ‘The Dirty South’

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The all-sound-based The Sims track is based on one familiar song, “Dixie,” composed for pre-Civil War bard performances and intended to mock stereotypes of “happy” Black slave life. (The lyricist is likely to be Black.) It later became the Confederate anthem with altered lines, and then became the canonical expression of Lost Cause nostalgia during the Jim Crow era. The Sims are not rewriting the song; it only records performances by black musicians in a range of black musical styles – gospel, blues, soul, hip-hop – and reduces its white supremacist kick through genius allocation.

His work is particularly influential where it is: in the 1897 Confederate Memorial Chapel, which still stands on the museum’s grounds. Indeed, the close neighborhood is saturated with Confederate culture. The headquarters of the Daughters of the United Confederacy sits on a squat block of white Georgia marble right next to the museum. Monument Avenue, once a settlement filled with statues of Confederate heroes, is nearby. (As of 2020, all the heroes except one, Robert E. Lee, have been trucked off.)

The term “Dirty South” can refer to many things, including a morally tainted history. All of the artwork in the VFMA exhibition is based on such a history, though largely recent. While the show will travel to other venues in other cities, the one seen here has a special resonance.

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

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

The exhibit heads to the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston from October 23, 2021 to February. 6, 2022; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark., March 12-July 25, 2022; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, September 2022-February. 2023.

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