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“Dirty South” Curator on her Passion Project

An interview with Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis family curator of modern and contemporary art.

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Style Weekly: How has the museum weathered the pandemic and how did it impact your planning of this exhibition?

Cassel Oliver: The pandemic did affect it, but not to the extent one would think, actually. It only pushed the opening back by a month from our original date, which was in April. … The research for the project is what got a bit waylaid – lack of travel, some artists’ and colleagues’ decreased ability to share their works because some museums enacted moratoriums on sharing their art and artifacts during the pandemic. … But by the ancestors and by God, it has manifested in the ways I envisioned due to many resources made available to this exhibition.

In what ways is “The Dirty South” relevant to today’s social and cultural climate?

You made mention of the pandemic earlier. … Well, the reality is, there have been two pandemics: the COVID pandemic and the pandemic of racism, which has been known in the Black community since we’ve been here. But this [pandemic] really forced us to collectively recognize racism as a disease that infects every part of this country, [that has] riddled our social structures and systems. So this exhibit speaks to that very strongly, I think.

When was the show conceived and how long have you been planning it? 

The germination for this happened while I was still in Houston, at the contemporary art museum there. Houston is an epicenter of the Southern hip-hop movement. I saw how there was a sense of pride among Southern artists, younger artists, born into the post-Civil Rights era South, and it really began for me a deep meditation on Blackness as expressed artistically through sonic and visual mediums. … So I have wanted to do this since I came to Richmond, and have spent the past three years planning and strategizing the exhibit and all I wanted it to encompass.

This exhibit features a large, dynamic group of Black artists from various disciplines. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it is that Blackness is not a monolith. Were you intentional about choosing artists who reflect the diversity of the Black experience in America? If so, what process did you use to select their work?

The work is intergenerational, so by its nature, it will have a diversity of experiences because each successive generation will have different focal points, but yet, maybe similar concerns and interests. ... You do see this mediation of Blackness explored in different modes. 

I wanted this to be a meditation on artists from the South, which is quite particular. You have the South and then the diaspora of the South. If you are African American and you can trace your lineage in America, then more than likely, your family came from the South. Your family may have left the South during the Great Migration; this is what we see with many hip-hop artists on the West Coast. But the South is still the bedrock. By its nature, Blackness is a very elusive, evolving thing. So by its nature there is no monolith, no one Black experience. That’s what this exhibition gets toward; it’s not looking to pigeonhole Blackness.

What is your sincerest desire for the public when viewing “The Dirty South?” What do you want people to take home from this?

I would say the sheer resilience and persistence of Black culture and how it has truly shaped American culture – that’s what I want people to take with them. 

[The Black South] is it, this is the bedrock of American culture right here. And the Black brilliance that is on view in this exhibit [pauses, inhales deeply]; there should be no question about contributions that have been made and continue to be made today. This is a history of the South in its own beautiful and fragmented way. 

To me, it’s a bit of a love song to the place where I emerged from. I really want people to see it and connect some dots. 

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