Exhibition Trend: Identity Crisis in the Southern States

by Arden Cone

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe,  An Old Fallen House Next to a Tree  ;  Image courtesy of the Columbia Museum of Art

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, An Old Fallen House Next to a TreeImage courtesy of the Columbia Museum of Art

Hiding behind the stereotype of the die-hard, conservative, grits-eating hillbilly, there is the real American Southerner, one who struggles with a clouded and troubled regional identity. For some time (and good reason), art institutions hadn’t even attempted to explore the South’s ongoing identity crisis: get it wrong, and you’re in for some trouble. Southerners, after all, are defensive about their identity, and rightfully so. It’s not the judgmental labels from outsiders that really get to us, however. It’s the South’s original sin that has burned us for centuries: slavery. We want to be a proud people, but our legacy nearly strips us of this right.

In response to a growing trend, three museums across the Carolinas have braved opening up Pandora’s box: out fly the chaotic components that make a Southerner a Southerner. The Gibbes Museum of Art (Charleston, SC,) the Columbia Museum of Art (Columbia, SC,) and the Nasher Museum of Art (Durham, NC,) have each, within the past year, held exhibitions of works dealing with southern identity.

William Christenbury,   Dream Building Ensamble,   Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

William Christenbury, Dream Building Ensamble, Photo Credit: Lou Hammond & Associates

The Things We Carry: Contemporary Art in the South, is charged with the emotional weight of being a Southerner. Signifiers of the South’s racially divided past—the Confederate flag and Ku Klux Klan hoods, evoked in works by Sonya Clark and William Christenberry—hardly reflect off our rearview mirrors, for they are not behind us at all. Controversy over the Confederate flag rages on, and the Klan is still a viable threat. Even so, Clark’s work offers a positive suggestion. Her Confederate flag no longer hangs in looming pride. Instead, it sits in humble piles of red, white, and blue thread, a symbol of hate completely disentangled. Importantly, she has not destroyed it. It’s all still there, but now, in its unraveled form, we can understand it to be a color-coded symbol of America’s patriotism. The Things We Carry directly portrays the South’s trauma, yet it answers our desperate plea: make it stop. It does so politely, poetically, and without an act of blatant contention.

The Nasher’s exhibition, Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, fights combatively to resolve the region’s racist and violent past. As a colossal survey including sixty artists and 125 works of art, it has the guns to do this. Brian Howe[1] remarked of the exhibition’s works, “All of these stories flow in some way toward race, a constant undertow that — in this exhibit, as in the South itself — regularly overflows into floods of palpable pain and confrontation.”

William Cordova,  Silent Parade... or The Soul Rebels Band vs. Robert E. Lee . 2014 Video (color, sound); 9:54 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins and Co., New York, New York,  ©  William Cordova. Photo by Michiko Kurisu 

William Cordova, Silent Parade... or The Soul Rebels Band vs. Robert E. Lee. 2014 Video (color, sound); 9:54 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins and Co., New York, New York, © William Cordova. Photo by Michiko Kurisu 

The word confrontation literally means “the act of bringing two parties face to face,” and, as Howe pointed out, it is no stranger to southern identity. We see this in William Cordova’s piece, Silent Parade… or the Soul Rebels Band vs. Robert E. Lee. It is a video that depicts a New Orleans band on a rooftop, facing a tall statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. For nine minutes and fifty-four seconds, the African American musicians direct their soulful sounds at the statue, playing a show of their culture’s resilience. The statue remains unaltered in physical form—it still stares aggressively towards the North—but the face-off has a clear winner. The musicians have completed an act of correction, displaying that no one’s ideals or actions can restrain African American culture.

The message of the piece is hopeful, but its confrontational nature is disquieting, as it is a clear sign of division in a South struggling for unity. Writer Brendan Greaves[2] remarked on this subject: “Despite its inherently syncretic nature, the expressive culture of the American South is inexplicably braided with narratives of difference and division—a natural and lamentable legacy of the region’s violent and vexed history. The identity signifiers that drive binary categorization—like race, class, faith, education level, and geography—are more ingrained and persistent in the South than elsewhere in the country.” Unfortunately, black and white thinking comes from a very literal place here, and the thought process is hard to break.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe,  Shrimper Pulling in His Line;  Image courtesy of the Columbia Museum of Art

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Shrimper Pulling in His Line; Image courtesy of the Columbia Museum of Art

At the Columbia Museum of Art, Dafuskie Memories puts mainstream southern identity aside to focus on a nearly forgotten southern subculture: the Gullah African American culture, which can be found on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. As an exhibition, it serves a duel purpose: it is an important documentation of a rapidly disappearing way of life, but it is also photography as fine art. Photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe records the culture and constructs a southern identity from the outside looking in. The exhibition is far from being a complete look at the Gullah people, let alone southern people, but it doesn’t pretend to be.

A good curator knows that his or her exhibition cannot be the final say. The shows described in this essay are important, simply by virtue of their humility. None of the exhibitions—even the Nasher’s wildly ambitious survey—tries to create one comprehensive definition of the South. I give them proper respect for this, for those who live below the Mason-Dixon Line know: one southern identity doesn’t exist.

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe,   Union Baptist Church;   Image courtesy of the   Columbia Museum of Art

Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Union Baptist Church; Image courtesy of the Columbia Museum of Art


[1] Howe, Brian. "‘Southern Accent’ Is a Revolutionary Exploded Diagram of Southern Identity in Contemporary Art." Hyperallergic. N.p., 24 Sept. 2016. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.


[2] Greaves, Brendan. "Humming This Song Trying to Remember the Way Another Goes." Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art. By Miranda Isabel Lash. Durham, NC: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke U, 2016. N. pag. Print.


Arden Cone