Recess | Campus Arts

"Southern Accent" exhibit confronts legacy of the South

Many Duke students may know the Nasher Museum of Art as a quiet place to look at art, or the place with the best brunch on campus. Last Wednesday the Nasher was unrecognizable, as hundreds of people crammed into the space vibrating with music. Attendees waited in line for the chance to see the main event: the Nasher’s newest exhibition, “Southern Accent.”

The opening party was one of the Nasher’s largest events ever, featuring catered food and drink as well as a musical lineup and over 1,250 people in attendance.

“Southern Accent” is one of the museum’s largest exhibitions, filling two galleries. The exhibit contains over 120 pieces from 60 artists, all focusing on the contemporary South and what the concept of the South means in today’s world. The oldest pieces date back to the 1950s, but the show mainly focuses on art produced within the last thirty years.

One of the most interesting pieces from the “Southern Accent” opening party was Virginia-born Sonya Clark’s performance piece “Unraveling.” Clark invites viewers to help her unravel parts of a Confederate flag. Instead of merely ripping or tearing the flag, Clark takes the flag apart slowly, as if to mimic the slow reversal of the effect the Confederacy has had on the South.

“She talked about the fact that it took a long time for the Confederacy to be created and it’s going to take a long time to unravel it,” commented Ruth Caccavale, Museum Educator and participant in Clark’s piece.

The flag hangs in the Nasher until Clark returns on Oct. 20 to give museum visitors another chance to confront the legacy of the Civil War.

“Southern Accent” has come together over the last four years through the collaborative efforts of Nasher chief curator Trevor Schoonmaker and Miranda Lash, a curator from the Speed Art Museum in Kentucky.

“It was important to include a variety of voices from various decades in order to acknowledge the South’s history, but also to consider its changing present and future,” assistant curator Molly Boarati said.

One of the primary themes found in “Southern Accent” is the legacy that the Civil War and slavery has had on the south. Hank Willis Thomas’ “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” allows visitors to view themselves in mirrors that also depict famous moments in the civil rights movement. “A Defeated Soldier Wishes to Walk His Daughter Down the Wedding Aisle” confronts the aftermath of the Civil War and the effects it had on the survivors.

More unexpected connections are also found within the exhibit. Diego Camposeco takes on the topic of the growing Latino population in North Carolina, while Catherine Opie highlights the presence of LGBTQ+-identifying people in the South in her series “Domestic.”

“Southern Accent” also raises the idea of a changing South. Justin Crosby and Bill Thelen’s “Biscuit King” highlights a Durham restaurant that closed in 2004, while Rachel Boillot addresses the changes that the 2006 Accountability and Enhancement act had on closing post offices in the South in a photo series. As these post offices closed, town centers or entire zip codes disappeared along with them.

Video plays an important role in the exhibition, as seven different videos appear in various places throughout the show. No two videos are similar. Some videos focus primarily on music, while others are silent or more historical.

“It is important to include a variety of mediums in the exhibition in order to tell a fuller story,” Boarati said.

The exhibit also features a music library containing songs written about or from the South, as southern music has played a pivotal role in shaping music around the world. The library stands in a corner of the Nasher’s atrium. Visitors can put on a pair of headphones and listen to music from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers to Aretha Franklin. The display offers visitors a chance to actively engage with the art instead of just wandering around the galleries.

“Southern Accent” does not take one view of the South. It discusses the strengths and shortcomings of the region in various visual and auditory forms to present a complete picture of where the South has come from and where it is going.

“It shows the complexity of the South that we don’t often talk about,” Caccavale said.

“Southern Accent” will be on display at the Nasher until Jan. 8, 2017, at which point it will travel to the Speed Art Museum.


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