The Nasher Museum of Art: "Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art," on View until January 8, 2017
by Arden Cone
She watched us create and destroy ourselves. She watched our riches ebb, flow, and evaporate to nothing when Reconstruction beset our Southern city. She stood taller than the Confederate monuments we raised and prouder than the Dixie flags we flew. Angel Oak, as she is called, is live oak who is centuries older than the city that owns her, and centuries wiser than the slaveholder for whom she is named.
Her trunk-like limbs, one hundred and fifty feet long, sweep far and low, periodically touching the ground. At each contact point, her limbs grow roots that embed her back again into her native soil. Southerners have this tendency too. We may stray from our place of origin, twine our way around the world; yet we’ll always be rooted in red clay soil. If Southerners had an identity, Angel Oak would be it.
She is the South we wish we had been: patient, accepting, and intrinsically aware that all beings are connected. In absence of her wisdom, we did wrong. We fractured the mirror that reflected the singular, homogenous South we could have been. Its shards remind us that our regional identity is forever under reconstruction.
Only recently have scholars and curators become interested in the South’s ongoing identity crisis, an idea that the region’s artists have explored for centuries on end. It is the role of museums and galleries to make sense of these voices, however proud or humble, in the context of a history that roars an uncensored tape of trauma and blood.
Co-curators Miranda Lash, curator at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, KY, and Trevor Schoonmaker, chief the Nasher Museum of Art (Durham, NC), have explored this topic on a grand scale. Their massive exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, is a force to be reckoned with. It sweeps through two of the Nasher’s three gallery pavilions and even accommodates a full music library, acknowledging the South’s pervasive influence beyond the visual arts. Southern Accent will travel to the Speed Art Museum, where it will be on view April 29- August 20, 2017.
Visual cues and subject matter, two factors that organize the exhibition, reign in its vastness. They tie each room into a neat bow upon entrance and unfix it upon exit, creating flawless transitions from one work to the next. A grayscale video by Jeff Whetstone, for example, depicts a black snake slithering and curling atop a white background. I stand in front of it, but my periphery draws me into the room across the way.
The world shifts evermore into black and white as I approach the Kara Walker piece that has beckoned me in: black silhouettes, white background, black children, white cotton. The exploited. The exploitative. Young King Cotton strides across the frame. The images form a dialogue with Whetstone’s snake in the opposing room—and the words they do speak! The snake, a harbinger of evil, foreshadows the colonial atrocities that Walker’s piece describes. Independently, each work of art is hardly thrilling, but together they speak volumes.
Walker’s work rarely needs to stand on curatorial placement as a crutch, but her cutout in Southern Accent does. Perhaps, for a moment, she disappoints, but I only needed to take a few steps forward for her to become the star of the show. Easily. I walk into a darkened room where her video, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture, brings an adult shadow show into barbarous existence. Just like a puppet show, it is mere child’s play, yet the narratives Walker describes are relentlessly racial, sexual, and violent. She unconcernedly shows the puppeteers’ adult hands, in the frame as they “play” with the silhouettes, guiding them into positions of sexual dominance and sub-ordinance. I shirk off a feeling of grossness. The drama takes me onboard the slave ships, through the cotton fields, and into the psychological hang-ups of the Antebellum South. A brilliantly conceived and artfully crafted idea, Walker’s piece becomes the long-lost supplement to my sixth-grade American History textbook. I ask myself which of the two histories is more perverted.
While Walker’s work is arguably the most powerful in the show, the exhibition doesn’t get lost in its tides. Race is only an undercurrent. What surfaces is the defining feature that makes a Southerner a Southerner: a damned determined spirit of resilience. It’s in our blood. It’s in the religious fervor I see on roadside come-to-Jesus signs, much like those of Henry Harrison Mayes. Birney Imes saw it in the juke joints of Louisiana, where African American culture thrives.
Henry Harrison Mayes, Untitled, n.d. Corrugated metal and rolled asphalt; 51.5x72 inches (130.81x182.88 cm.) Collection of Jill McCorkle and Tom Rankin. © Estate of Henry Harrison Mayes. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.
Some would say we’ve lost a lot. Katrina took 800,000 southern homes; the Civil War took 500,000 southern lives; the region’s plantations took four million slaves and stripped them of their rights. Yet, through it all, we have maintained our resilience.
We learned it from her. Though hurricanes have rocked her branches and earthquakes have shaken her core, she has resolved to survive. Now at 500 years of age, she is a sight to behold. Her show of resilience is moving—spectacular, even—but I well know: it’s nothing more than a southern tradition.