Soul of RVA: A peek inside the new ‘Dirty South’ exhibit coming to the VMFA


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A new, highly anticipated exhibition is coming soon to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Slated to open in late May, ‘The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse,’ travels through time and history to explore how the African American South has shaped America today.

“I would say this exhibition is really trying to do something quite extraordinary,” VMFA Curator Valerie Cassel Oliver told 8News. “That’s my hope. That it sheds a deeper understanding of how we’ve embraced the South over a period of time, and how the South really does tell the American story.”

Through the lens of contemporary music and art, the groundbreaking exhibit showcases the roots of Southern hip-hop culture, and how traditions of the African American South influenced our country and the world.

WATCH: VMFA curator Valerie Cassel Oliver explains ‘Afro-Dixie Remixes’

“You have artists from as early as the 1920s, and even before then really celebrating what it means to be Southern,” Cassel Oliver said. “So, that’s really what this exhibition is really all about. It focuses on the landscape. It focuses on thought processes and how that manifested. It also focuses on the Black body itself. It’s an ode to the South. It’s my own sense.”

Cassel Oliver hopes the exhibit focuses not only on the setbacks, but joys of the African American experience.

“Even though it is a source where trauma occurred, it’s a space of great resilience,” Cassel Oliver explained. “Where people thrived in spite of the laws, in spite of the social limitations that existed.”

The exhibition has been in the works for years, and Cassel Oliver says it’s rooted in music.

“The exhibition itself digs deep,” she said. “It goes down to 100 years. When I originally started thinking about the exhibit, I started to think about it in a contemporary frame. Thinking about hip hop music – Southern hip hop music, and the correlations to that sonic declaration of being present. How people began to embrace their Southernness.”

She said that vision quickly grew.

“I would say I came to the museum with this idea, I wasn’t sure how it could manifest because I wasn’t solely working in a contemporary art museum,” she said. “That opened it up. That give it the expanse. That gave it the wingspan to say, ‘Let’s not just look at the mid 1990s to the present — let’s look at 1920 to 2020. Let’s see how deep we can go.’ Surprisingly, between photography, and painting and works on paper and installation and sonic works – there were all of these ties that led back to the South.”

The exhibit will feature more than 140 works of art including sound installations, photography and paintings.

Two satellite locations featuring Paul Rucker’s ‘Storm in the Time of Shelter’ and John Sims’ ‘AfroDixieRemixes’ have already opened to the public. Both are located on VMFA’s campus.

The exhibition will be on view from May 22 to September 6, 2021. You can get tickets at the VMFA’s


WEB EXTRA: VMFA curator, Valerie Cassel Oliver, gives a background on ‘Storm in Time of Shelter’

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