In the wake of a summer marred by tragic police brutality, many institutions—especially those in the South—are left grappling with their own roles in racism and oppression. In the exhibition From Pandemic to Protests, curator Lia Newman, director of Davidson College’s Van Every/Smith Galleries, has drawn from the college’s permanent collection to present an exhibition of artworks that speak to the conflicts and anxieties of the present. Like many of the galleries’ shows, it is small but mighty.
A painting by Jim Dine of a big black heart guards the entry to the exhibition, half welcoming, half warning, while text on an embroidered handkerchief by Louise Bourgeois attests, I have been to hell and back. And let me tell you, it is wonderful. Photographs of protests by Alvin C. Jacobs remind viewers of what has been brewing all summer, highlighting nearby Charlotte as a site of unrest. A Kara Walker silhouette holds court among works by Davidson professors and alumni.
The meat of the exhibition, however, comes from Bethany Collins’s Dixie’s Land (2020). Commissioned by the college last year, this ten-part installation was born of Davidson’s own archives. Each work appears as sheet music for different versions of the old Civil War-era minstrel ballad “Dixie” (also known as “Dixie’s Land” and “I Wish I Was in Dixie”). When Collins was an artist-in-residence at the college in 2019, she came across a letter written in the 1960s requesting that the college stop playing “Dixie”—which had served as the de facto national anthem of the confederacy—at its sporting events.
In Dixie’s Land, each page of sheet music is printed and framed individually. Further employing the kind of textual intervention that marks her “Erasure” series, Collins created smears of charcoal that obscure the lyrics and bars of music, using her own hands to distort the historical image.
Dixie’s Land hangs plainly at the entrance of the exhibition, and its presence lingers with you as you take in the rest of the show. The past is still with us, now smoldering, it seems to say. Nothing could be more palpably and urgently true at this moment in time.
From Pandemic to Protests is on view at the Van Every/Smith Galleries at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, through October 18.