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As a lifelong resident of the South who often has cause to talk to people from elsewhere, I find that my accent is a recurring topic of conversation. Someone will wonder why I don’t have one, and seem astonished. Someone else will retort, “What are you talking about? He totally has one!” and seem amused. Personally, I think my accent is pretty neutral, — a decompressed drawl just doesn’t match the voice in my head — except when it isn’t. It waxes and wanes depending on whom I’m talking to. But who am I to judge? An accent is a medium that takes on definition from the outside, wherever that boundary is drawn.
A range of ambiguity lies between the reflex and the strategy of speech, and then come the hearer’s biases. If someone thinks all Southerners should sound like they just walked out of Hee Haw, then of course they’ll be surprised by my diction. But someone else will pick up the words where my speech heads south; “toilet” always gives me away. These conversations underscore a certain attitude of condescension endemic to our collective concept of Southern-ness, an attitude those of us without any fealty to the Old South share. As someone bred with generations of apologetic discretion, it wouldn’t occur to me to remark on someone’s speech, or to take offense if they remark on mine.
The harder you look for a clear, monolithic South, the less likely you are to find one, and therein lies the brilliance of Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art, a new exhibit at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, North Carolina. In a land with a history of violence so heinous it obliterates nuance, a land still reckoning with unpardonable crimes, and a land that is lushly layered with projections, the exhibit is an exploded diagram of how it feels to be Southern from the inside, with all the diversity, idiosyncrasy, and conflict that it entails. It’s far from an apologia, but it verifies that “the South” is an incoherent entity — that an Arkansas accent is not a Georgia one, and a North Carolina dialect in Appalachia is not a North Carolina dialect in Durham.
Curators Trevor Schoonmaker and Miranda Lash have assembled 125 works by sixty artists, from local talent to well known names such as Sally Mann, Kara Walker, and Ebony G. Patterson, to deconstruct clichés both derogatory and sentimental. They exhume a wild, verdant landscape from under sunbaked stereotypes. Lash is the contemporary curator of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, where Southern Accent will travel in April of next year. It will be no surprise if it goes elsewhere, too: Schoonmaker, the Nasher’s chief curator, has a strong track record of launching exhibits from Durham, including the likes of Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey and Barkley L. Hendricks: Birth of the Cool. But the question of Southern identity is particularly acute in North Carolina right now, as a divided state grapples with the fallout from the so-called “bathroom bill,” HB 2, which strips far more rights from LGBTQ people than public bathrooms alone.
One of Hendricks’s portraits, “Down Home Taste” (1971), is included in Southern Accent, and at a glance, it might seem odd that an artist renowned for life-size portraits of black people from Northeastern cities should be featured. But look closely at the matchbook the subject is holding and you’ll notice a logo for Winston, the R.J. Reynolds cigarette brand from North Carolina. In this context, it alludes to the permeability of the Mason-Dixon line; it also illustrates the detailed, comprehensive discernment behind the exhibit. The South has often been examined in the context of its past, but seldom, if ever, has it been sought so assiduously through contemporary art, bolstered by a catalogue that goes far beyond an exegesis of slides, with lively, personal essays by the likes of former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey and Drive-By Truckers bandleader Patterson Hood. As Lash notes in her essay, the notoriously homogenous 2014 Whitney Biennial included nine artists based in Europe and zero based in the American South. This is a persuasive corrective to that oversight.
Southern Accent erases distinctions between insider and outsider, regional and national, documentary and abstract, densely weaving them into a mesh of stories and themes. A corrugated metal sign screaming “GET RIGHT WITH GOD” by Henry Harrison Mayes, who hung thousands of such evangelical signs around the country, is hurled into proximity with the likes of Romare Bearden. The show is ingeniously installed in a series of ample but intimate rooms in a way that draws you into a one-on-one encounter with each piece, with the major videos tucked away in their own dark, cozy theaters. History exists not as a chronological series of facts, but as it does in life: everywhere, all at once, loudly contesting with itself. As encounters accrue, connections start to spark across the galleries like arc lightning.
The goldenrod background and life-size figuration of “Down Home Taste” reverberate through Amy Sherald’s “High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes” (2011), in which two men in white suits hold pink cotton candy. Andy Warhol, whose pieces in the show include a candy-colored Dolly Parton silkscreen (1985), is baited by William Christenberry, who arranged thirty-two found metal signs like the iconic soup cans in “Alabama Wall” (1975). In one bravura tone cloud, James Herbert’s 1984 video for the Athens, Georgia band R.E.M.’s Reckoning, which was filmed in R.A. Miller’s whirligig park, suffuses a room that also includes Burk Uzzle’s photo of whirligigs by North Carolina folk artist Vollis Simpson, “Acid Park” (2009), and a painting by Howard Finster, “Visions of the Angels — Honey Without Bees” (1978). Finster was famous for his R.E.M. album cover art — including, of course, for Reckoning.
Nothing of the Southern terroir escapes the exhibit’s compass, a kudzu maze where war, slavery, racism, music, food, religion, time, place, and speech bend and turn imperceptibly into one another. Dario Robleto’s sculpture, “A Defeated Solider Wishes to Walk His Daughter Down the Wedding Aisle” (2004), is an unforgettable image of a pair of empty boots walking on a tracked line of sand, made of materials including battlefield dirt, femur dust, and bacteria cultured from old prison-song-record grooves. It’s alive, a ghost striding into the present. Indeed, hidden in living mediums like food and music and religion, death is everywhere in the South. It pools in certain places as if from reservoirs underground — perhaps especially in New Orleans. In “Black Flag (for Elizabeth’s)” (2008), Skylar Fein styles the menu board for the New Orleans restaurant Elizabeth’s as a punk-infused American flag. Willie Birch portrays jazz funerals in strong, stark charcoal illustrations in two pieces. Richard Misrach preserves sometimes funny, mostly wrenching messages written on buildings after Hurricane Katrina in an untitled series from 2005.
In reverent black and white, Tom Rankin photographs churches and graveyards, where the South’s obsession with its past abuts its obsession with its own physical contours, its haunted sites and immemorial landscapes. In Sally Mann’s dark but voluminous photograph of an Antietam trench from her Battlefields series (2001), we seem to look through the dimmed eyes of a Civil War ghost, still stranded there after more than 150 years, unrestful in history. There are scale models of shacks (Beverly Buchanan) and diners (Bill Thelen and Jerstin Crosby). Christenberry revisits an abandoned building in Alabama across twenty years, capturing its gradual reclamation by heavy foliage, like an organic form of time.
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. Jessica Ingram captures the essence of the South’s horror-haunted beauty in her “Road Through Midnight: A Civil Rights Memorial” series (2006) of simple, pretty landscape photographs at the sites of race-related atrocities. The most transformative piece in the show is the video “8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture by Kara E. Walker” (2005), a psychosexual shadow-play of American slavery that bewitches the senses with its astonishing horror. Warhol’s “Birmingham Race Riot” (1964) is more revealing in its title than its aestheticized image, but in Hank Willis Thomas new series, “Ain’t Gonna let Nobody Turn Us Around” (2015–16), he confronts us with ourselves in murky mirrors partially covered with photos of volatile moments from the civil rights movement.
Willis also shows a video, “Black Righteous Space (Southern Edition)” (2012), where the pattern of a Confederate battle flag in African colors dances around merrily whenever a microphone in the theater picks up sound. It’s one of those pieces whose meaning is impossible to articulate but perfectly clear as a feeling of implication. From there, the exhibit lunges into recent history, with Michael Galinsky’s photos of the day the KKK came to Chapel Hill in 1987; leaps into the present, with Diego Camposeco’s stylized portraits of Latin-American immigration; flings itself back to the distant past, most forcibly in “I PUT A SPELL ON YOU” (2015), Jeffrey Gibson’s Everlast punching bag covered in faux-Native-American beadwork, where we seem to come to the fundamental crime.
The South, or at least the fast-paced and university-laden metroplex in which I live, does not resemble its caricatures — except when it does. Even when we’re being rude, we’re politer here, it’s true. We move a little slower, and we spend considerable time on porches. I sometimes laugh about how people imagine I’m sitting on a bale of hay somewhere when they hear I live in North Carolina. Then I’ll find myself actually sitting on a hay bale, in one of the country fields I love outside the city, and laugh again. I’ll remember the big, dumb epiphany I had around age thirty, as someone who had always defined himself against Southern stereotypes: That whatever I am was shaped, even in opposition, by the landscape and culture of North Carolina, and that I was ineluctably a North Carolinian, with both the criminal burden and progressive mandate that entails. That my accent is an ineluctably Southern one, however it sounds. And that the South, as this exhibit so acutely reveals, is not a settled matter. It’s something we’re all inventing every day, and whatever we invent is as Southern as what we sweep away.
Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art continues at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art (2001 Campus Drive, Durham, North Carolina) through January 8, 2017.