Kara Walker’s 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, a Moving Picture (2005), a grainy black-and-white film, unfolds in shaky, animated-by-hand silhouettes. At a crucial juncture, the figure of a well-muscled African-American male, presumably a slave, is impregnated by a besuited, presumably white plantation (and slave) owner, who delicately inserts a single cotton boll up the slave’s ass, who in turn gives birth to a phallic abstraction – an unformed fetal figure, an amorphous tar baby that further morphs into a tree from which lynched black bodies hang.
Walker’s work of incendiary eroticism is one of a kaleidoscopic array of some 60 artists responding to or in some way channeling the American South in “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” a joint curatorial venture between the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University and the Speed Art Museum in Louisville. The hallucinatory quality of Walker’s work is in keeping with the tone of the exhibition. Co-curators Trevor Schoonmaker of the Nasher and Miranda Lash of the Speed have opted for an almost surrealistic approach to the question of regional identity, which is a good thing. The anticipatory tension at the prospect of strict or literal delineations is met with exuberant problematizing.
Despite its halluncinatory tenor, the exhibition does not let us off the hook. From one work to the next, the viewer may be subject to a sense of overwhelm and emotional triggering. The construct of the American South serves a kind of metonymic function for a particular brand of racism and a slew of other cultural exports that have been absorbed and integrated into mythologies and distortions that extend far beyond the Mason Dixon line. Cumulatively, the works in the exhibition forge an approximation of Richard J. Powell’s succinct assessment in the exhibition catalogue of the historical and cultural factors that shaped the South: “from its genesis and growth as a result of agricultural prowess and the transatlantic slave trade, to its identity being irrevocably tied to the American Civil War and that conflict’s bloody legacy of racial discrimination, and more than a century of struggle over extending citizenship to its African-American populations.” The idea of The South in these terms has dire stakes in the current moment: the very fact that there is a need to assert that Black Lives Matter is rooted in this legacy.
But at its core, “Southern Accent” refuses to establish definitive boundaries. The works give rise to both recognition and revelation, sometimes simultaneously. The experience of the exhibition is one of having entered into a series of unfolding Venn diagrams in which congruent and overlapping themes arise and fade, never allowing the viewer to draw precise conclusions or derive static terms. This substantial exhibition features over a hundred works in a range of mediums that include painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and video. The works in the exhibition are filtered through a lens of diversity by both national and international artists, each of whom represents a particular faceted relationship to the show’s premise. The thematic reach of the exhibition extends along a wild range of interrelated themes that accrue to the American South, from cuisine to climate to flora, fauna, poverty, privilege, subjectivity, identity, ethnicity, religion, music, sexuality and a range of symbologies, punctuated by flags, both American and Confederate.
Black Flag (For Elizabeth’s), 2008, by Skylar Fein (b. Manhattan, lives in New Orleans) is a large construction of wood, plaster and acrylic. Its formal orientation is the American flag, but it is rendered in black and white with punches of red and yellow and painted up to resemble a wall menu in a New Orleans snack shack. The signage advertises Creole delicacies such as “dream burger w/ praline bacon & blue cheese,” “smoked crispy hog jowls,” and “Beer-B-Q oysters” peppered with salient adjectives, “ripe,” “sweet,” “boiled,” “tail-on” and, singularly, the word “yes.” The work serves up a conceptual gumbo of punk rock anarchy and cultural/culinary appropriation as well as oblique homage to Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The strategy of the conceptual and cultural mashup serves as a cornerstone of the show. [cont.]