“Southern Accent” Explores the Nuances & Complexities of American South

Artwork: George Jenne, Spooky Understands, 2013. Video (color, sound); 21:27 minutes. Courtesy of the artist. ©George Jenne.

The American South: a land shrouded with myth and mystery, wrapped in layers of illusions and untold history. Novelist William Faulkner suggested that the South is not so much a “geographical place” as an “emotional idea,” furthering the disjunction between the reality and illusion that has permeated the South throughout its existence.

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Place is the foundation upon which culture is built and from this culture comes ten thousand things that shape and influence the human experience, from the physical and the spiritual to the intellectual and the emotional realms. To understand the multifaceted nature of the South, it behooves us to take a more nuanced view, taking in the many elements that make the South its own complex and fascinating world.

Rachel Boillot, 38765 Panther Burn, MS from the series Post Script, 2014. Archival pigment print, edition 2/12; 20 x 25 inches (50.8 x 63.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist. © Rachel Boillot.

Rachel Boillot, 38765 Panther Burn, MS from the series Post Script, 2014. Archival pigment print, edition 2/12; 20 x 25 inches (50.8 x 63.5 cm). Courtesy of the artist. © Rachel Boillot.

2800938989389_LRGSouthern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, currently on view at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, through January 8, 2017, does just this, approaching the subject from the perspective of its aesthetic progeny. The exhibition presents the work of 60 contemporary artists including Romare Bearden, Sanford Biggers, William Christenberry, Thornton Dial, Sam Durant, William Eggleston, Jessica Ingram, Kerry James Marshall, Richard Misrach Gordon Parks, Ebony G. Patterson, Fahmu Pecou, Burk Uzzle, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems, among others. Southern Accent will travel to the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, where it will be on view April 29 – August 20, 2017. Duke University Press has published a sumptuous 276-page catalogue of the same name edited by curators Miranda Lash and Trevor Schoonmaker.

Southern Accent examines our ideas of the South, ideas that stem from its brutal history of slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, poverty, and the Civil Rights Movement counterbalanced by the fertile soil that has given birth to extraordinary achievements in culture, music, literature, art, and cuisine, reminding us that nothing is ever quite as simple as propaganda would have us believe.

Amy Sherald, High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes, 2011. Oil on canvas; 59 x 69 inches (149.86 x 175.26 cm). Collection of Keith Timmons, ESQ, CPA. Image courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. © Amy Sherald.

Amy Sherald, High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes, 2011. Oil on canvas; 59 x 69 inches (149.86 x 175.26 cm). Collection of Keith Timmons, ESQ, CPA. Image courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago, Illinois. © Amy Sherald.

Schoonmaker reveals,The exhibition has been four years in the making, but the timing of Southern Accent is especially meaningful now—in the wake of Charleston, Orlando, Baton Rouge and countless other tragedies, and given the tense social and racial climate during this presidential election year. We’re an art museum, so exhibitions are our platform for starting conversations. I hope Southern Accent can create a space to reimagine the South in new ways and reframe the way we think about the South in contemporary art. At its best, art can help give shape to cultural and social change, promote needed discourse and even help build community.”

Here, the curators take us on a breathtaking ride through the visual landscapes of some of the greatest American artists of our time. We discover the ways in which oppression has created a response that reveals a diversity of response. In the photographs of William Eggleston we see the elements of decay that invariably come with trying to maintain cognitive dissonance in the face of immorality.

William Eggleston, Jackson, Mississippi, c. 1969. Dye transfer print; 13.563 x 21.063 inches (34.5 x 53.5 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, Memphis, Tennessee, and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, New York. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.

William Eggleston, Jackson, Mississippi, c. 1969. Dye transfer print; 13.563 x 21.063 inches (34.5 x 53.5 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, Memphis, Tennessee, and Cheim & Read Gallery, New York, New York. © Eggleston Artistic Trust.

Contrasted against the photographs of Richard Misrach, harrowing landscapes of graffiti left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and we begin to sense that history finds horrific ways of repeating itself. While some would prefer to turn a blind eye, embracing the appearances of things over the facts themselves, artists are often compelled to use their word to mediate the truths of the present and the past.

Consider Carrie Mae Weems who photographs herself at a plantation for The Louisiana Project in a series of quiet black and white images that speak of the unspeakable without ever saying a word. Compare with Andy Warhol’s 1985 color portrait of Dolly Parton who radiates the best that life has to offer. It’s an uneasy duality that continues to exist, one that speaks to the some of the darkest chapters in the history of the nation, the legacy of which is alive today.

WEB-Nasher-Southern-Accent-Fein

Skylar Fein, Black Flag (For Elizabeth’s), 2008. Wood, plaster, and acrylic; 43.5 x 72 x 1.25 inches (110.5 x 183 x 3.2 cm). Collection of Dathel and Tommy Coleman. Image courtesy of the artist and Jonathan Ferrara Gallery, New Orleans, Louisiana. © Skylar Fein.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, inadvertently speaking a difficult truth about the Southern experience. Southern Accent reveals that the truth of a place is composed of many layers that have melded over time, creating an idiosyncratic blend of constructed image, historical fact, and the great unknown—that which has disappeared because it was not deemed worthy of preservation. In this way Southern Accent opens a vital channel to perception using art to call up the spirits and ancestors of the land once more, to guide us forward as we continue to grapple with the very issues that remain embedded in the soil of the South.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.