William Faulkner once famously opined that not only is the past never dead, “It’s not even past.” That quote definitely comes to mind when inspecting “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art,” an ambitious new show opening this week at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art.
With 120 works from 60 artists in two separate pavilions of the Nasher, “Southern Accent” is big. And while it’s not all overtly tied to racial relations, the most eye-catching parts of the show are. Between ongoing Confederate flag controversies, the “Black Lives Matter” protest movement and racial controversies stirred up by Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, “Southern Accent” feels far more of the moment and pulled from the headlines than most museum shows.
“We started working on this almost five years ago and it has, sadly, become even more urgent and timely by the day,” said Trevor Schoonmaker, Nasher’s chief curator and co-curator of the exhibition. “That’s especially true with what’s transpired the last two years with the racial and social climate not just in the South, but nationally. While this show is an investigation of what it means to be Southern, it’s really an American show. The South gets painted with such broad brushstrokes as a monolithic culture and place. Our purpose is to complicate that notion.”
While a few pieces in the show go back more than half a century, the focus of “Southern Accent” is work from the last few decades. The show centers on visual art, but it also has a significant printed-word component in the catalog, featuring writings by 22 different artists from different fields. Also featured are videos plus a curated playlist of more than 200 songs ranging from Aretha Franklin to Corrosion of Conformity, playing in the Nasher galleries as well as on Spotify and YouTube.
Tying together a lot of the show’s different aspects is the alternative-rock band R.E.M., which figures into both the audio and video programs. “Southern Accent” includes “Left of Reckoning,” a short film by experimental filmmaker James Herbert (one of Michael Stipe’s professors at the University of Georgia), which the band commissioned to accompany side one of its 1984 album “Reckoning.”
“They went to a whirligig park and Herbert shot R.E.M. walking through the otherworldly Southernscape of this park in the dark,” Schoonmaker said. “So it’s this grainy experimental film mixed with vernacular yard art and cutting-edge Southern music of that time – all these disparate worlds together in one work, cloaked in this hard-to-define layer of Southernness.”
Many of the “Southern Accent” works dealing with racially charged subjects are pretty subdued in tone, which was by design. Sonya Clark’s “Unraveling” is an ongoing work that features a Confederate flag that is, indeed, being unraveled one thread at a time. Clark will appear twice during the show, Wednesday night and again on Oct. 20, to discuss and deconstruct the flag with help from the audience.
“A lot of artists have done very meaningful work around that flag, but this is more nuanced and complex than most,” Schoonmaker said. “The idea is to unravel a flag, not shred or deface it – taking it apart thread by thread and keeping the materials intact. It’s a great metaphor for the unraveling of society we’re seeing with the racial climate right now, but not in a knee-jerk way. It’s the most thoughtful response I’ve seen to the flag in a long time. So many others, you have an immediate visceral reaction and move on from it right away. This forces you to stay with it, keep on working it through.”
Then there’s “The Day the KKK Came to Town,” a remarkable video of a Klan march that happened in 1987 – in Chapel Hill, right down Franklin Street. It’s based on black-and-white pictures taken by a teenage Michael Galinsky (who later became an acclaimed film director) with audio interviews of counter-protesters recorded by two WXYC-FM deejays, Jeff Robins and Brandon Uttley. And while the voices are animated and even angry, many of the still images seem almost deadpan.
“Trevor and I thought a lot about how to represent the Klan in this show,” said co-curator Miranda Lash, from Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky. “One reason we were drawn to this is it has a humanizing element. There’s an ordinariness to the crowd and even the participants that you may find unnerving. It’s easy to imagine that being anywhere.”
Even more unnerving, the monochromatic imagery makes “The Day the KKK Came to Town” look like it could have happened yesterday, or in 1965.
“That’s what’s so intense about it,” said Galinsky. “Before the movement of pointing out all the inadequacies of our culture really picked up in the last year or two, that would not have been nearly as pronounced. It would have been easy to say, ‘That was then, but things are different now.’ Clearly, however, things are not that different at all, really.”
What: “Southern Accent: Seeking the American South in Contemporary Art”
Where: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2001 Campus Drive, Durham
When: Preview 7-10 p.m. Wednesday, opening Thursday and showing through Jan. 8
Cost: Wednesday preview party is free; after that, Nasher’s regular admission price is $5 adults, $4 seniors, $3 non-Duke students; free for Nasher members, children 15 and under, Duke students, faculty, staff and alumni association members; free for everyone Thursdays, 5-9 p.m.
Hours: Closed Mondays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday
More info: nasher.duke.edu or 919-684-5135, ext. 0