Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art
edited by Miranda Lash and Trevor Schoonmaker, Nasher Museum of Art and Duke University Press, 2016
The exhibition Southern Accent: Seeking the South in Contemporary Art debuted last year at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and is currently on view at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (April 30 – October 14, 2017). The show addresses various Southern themes, both historical and cultural: soul food, Christianity, blues and country music, slavery, civil rights, poverty, agrarianism. Curators Miranda Lash and Trevor Schoonmaker have conceived of the South less as a geographic place and more as a sensibility that, over time and with the migration of Southerners, has traveled far and wide—but that still claims such themes as foundational to Southern identity. The show’s exhibition catalogue expounds upon this premise and includes images, essays, and interviews covering the wide range of subjects that make the South such a complicated region. Given current debates surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments from cities like New Orleans, Louisiana, and Charlottesville, Virginia—and Alabama’s subsequent passage of a law protecting their Confederate monuments—the South continues to foment political conflict. The content of Southern Accent grapples with these and other difficult issues, while also celebrating traditions and practices that have contributed positively to American culture.
In each of their essays, the curators weave art-historical narratives into narratives about the South as a center of slavery, ongoing racism, and social justice: analyses of the assemblages of Southern artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, or the color photography of William Eggleston and William Christenberry, mix with accounts of the civil rights movements and racial violence. The book, like the exhibition, investigates the South’s ongoing struggles, even as it acknowledges signs of progress. There are lists of works of contemporary Southern literature and a timeline tracing the development of institutions and publications promoting contemporary art in the South. The catalogue also contains voices from the South’s growing immigrant and queer populations, such as Diego Camposeco’s essay about the lives of Latino farm workers in North Carolina and Catherine Opie’s account of driving through the South to photograph lesbian communities. The artworks and artists included in Southern Accent are part of a group of people living or working in the region who are committed to reversing the forces that keep the South mired in traditions that no longer reflect the South of their experience. Their artworks reflect these dialogues and, with them, a promise of change to a region that is still a flashpoint for deep divides in American culture and politics.