The Dirty South: Family Visit Guide

The Dirty South: Family Visit Guide

This guide offers families some helpful tips for visiting the The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse exhibition.

Grade Level:
Adult, College, Early Childhood, Grades 3-5, Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12, Grades K-2
African American Art, American Art, Modern and Contemporary Art, Photography
Subject Area:
African American, Fine Arts, Music, Visual Arts
Activity Type:
Gallery Guides & Hunts, Special Exhibition

The Dirty South: Family Visit Guide

Please note: This exhibition contains audio and audio-visual displays throughout that some visitors may be sensitive to.  Please ask an associate if you need assistance.


The exhibition, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse, is a compilation of art works that collectively explore the traditions, aesthetic impulses, and exchanges between the visual and the sonic arts in African American Southern culture over the last one hundred years. If you follow the activities in this guide, expect to spend at least 45 minutes in the exhibition. Here are some important facts about the exhibition before you enter.

Fast Facts:
  • This exhibition includes art that spans the last one hundred years, from 1920 to 2020.
  • There are approximately one hundred different artists featured in this exhibition.  They are intergenerational and vary in their artistic training.  This exhibition is not about any single artist, but rather about the power of their collective aesthetic.
  • There are over 140 works of art represented in this exhibition and they vary in form, size, medium and genre.
  • The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections:  
    1. Magical Realism of the South:  Landscape
    2. Sinners & Saints:  Religion
    3. Black Corporeality:  The Black Body
  • Note to families with younger children: This exhibition contains some works of art that explore or depict sensitive subjects such as racism and violence.

What is the Dirty South?

For many people familiar with the term “Dirty South,” it most often refers to southern hip-hop music; however there is no single or fixed definition.  It is a term with various meanings possible depending on the context.

The term “Dirty South” is  a term of endearment that is often used to denote the southeastern area of the United States (the area that made up most of the Confederacy).

Some say the term “Dirty South” came from the Atlanta Hip-Hop Group, Goodie Mob, who released the song, “What Chu Know About the Dirty South?” in their 1995 debut album entitled Soul Food.

The word “dirty” as an adjective is typically used with negative connotations; however, in this exhibition the word “dirty” should be thought of as a way to emphasize the following attributes:

  • Complexities
  • Flavor
  • Combination of ingredients
  • Layers of meaning
  • Richness

Here are some examples of other adjectives that typically have negative connotations but can be used to describe something positive:

  • “Wicked”
  • “Sick”
  • “Mean”

Can you think of any words you use to imply the opposite of the word’s intended meaning?

“Dirty” takes on some literal significance as well in the term “Dirty South.”  The South’s history is rooted in agriculture and healthy crops are dependent on the quality of the soil. Land functions as a wellspring of life, providing nourishment for the community.

When we think of the word “dirty” in the exhibition title, think about an object in your home that is old and “beat up” but still something that you consider very special or important; like a family heirloom.  Or maybe it’s a favorite stuffed animal that you drag everywhere.  Those types of items may become worn, disheveled, and stained, but the memories they represent give the object value allowing us to overlook the “wear and tear” or the “dirtiness” of them and instead, see only the positive.  

Richard FIEND Jones (also International Jones), (American, born 1976), SLAB, 2021, 1990 Cadillac Brougham d’Elegance, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts purchase

Cruise through the Atrium on your way to the exhibition entrance to see the SLAB Car!

On your way to the entrance of the exhibition, be sure to check out the SLAB Car on view in the Atrium.  SLAB stands for “slow, loud and banging.”  These customized cars began to emerge out of Houston, Texas in the 1980s.  Often starting with a vintage model, large-sized car like a Cadillac or Oldsmobile, these vehicles are completely rebuilt and customized, becoming a work of art and expression of the owner’s status and identity.  Slabs are known for elbow wheels, called “swangas,” high-gloss paint, and explosive stereo systems.  Intended to be driven slowly in an effort to be both seen and heard, these cars function as performance art, theatrically presenting the driver’s personality and style.


Explore the art. When you visit the exhibition, take time to look carefully at a few works of art rather than walking quickly through each room.

Look together. Explore art works in the galleries as a group and discuss what you see, think and wonder.

Try an activity. Try some of the activities that follow to enjoy a more meaningful experience of the works of art.  Activity prompt cards are also available in the stART Orientation Space in the WestRock Art Education Center.

Additional activities are also available on the VMFA Learn site. 

Section One: Landscape

The Southern landscape has long been a source of both inspiration and investigation for African American artists. Whether they are contemplating nature, using elements of the land in their art, or looking at the South as a place of oppression and pain, the Southern landscape plays a key role in the story of the Black American experience.  

As you explore the works of art in this first thematic section of the exhibition, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does this object relate to the Southern landscape? What elements can we see in this image that relate to the land?
  • Based on what you see and understand about the work, what do you think the artist is trying to say?
Possible Activity to try: Strike a Pose

Artists have reasons for posing people in their artworks. Sometimes just by mimicking the poses, you can understand more about the art even before getting any additional information.

Using Cortor’s Southern Landscape, or another work of figural art (a work of art that has a person in it) of your choosing, do the following:

Without looking at the label, study the gestures and body language of the figure you see. Carefully move your body and adjust your facial expression to match that of the figure. What does doing this tell you about what the figure may be thinking or feeling? How does the figure relate to the landscape they are in?

Now look at the label (if available), and compare your ideas to what is there.

What makes sense? What is surprising?

What ideas of your own would you add if you could?

Section Two:  Religion

Spirituality in the African American South is complex, reflecting a mixture of West and Central African, European, and Indigenous American traditions. For many of the artists in this exhibition, the materials they use often function as talismans (objects considered to have religious or magical powers intended to protect, heal, or harm individuals for whom they are made). Some of the artists in this section were inspired by their dreams or mystical visions. Also, intricately linked to African American spirituality is music or the “sonic impulse.” For many years, music has been the means by which Black Americans have transformed grief, pain and hardships into positive energy. 

As you explore the works of art in the second thematic section of the exhibition, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does this object relate to African American spirituality or religion? What elements can we see in this image that direct us to spirituality, beliefs, and traditions?
  • Based on your interpretation of the work, what message do you think the artist is trying to relay to the viewer?
Possible Activity to try: DJ the Artwork

Using Romare Bearden’s Three Folk Musicians, or another work of your choice, follow these steps:

Take your time and carefully look at the work of art. Look at every part of the work, studying even the smallest details. Note:  try spending at least 30 seconds looking.

Next, make a list of adjectives/words that describe the work of art. If you have a pencil you can write them down, but if not, just think of a list (note: if you wish to write while visiting the museum, graphite pencils are required). You can choose adjectives that describe specific marks, particular sections, or the piece as a whole.

Take a moment to review your list of adjectives. Now, choose the 4 adjectives that you feel best describe this piece.

For each of your chosen adjectives, come up with a correlating sound. So, if these adjectives were sounds, what sounds would they be? This step relies on your imagination – there is absolutely no right or wrong answer. Your sounds could be musical terms, instruments, or everyday life sounds.

Choose a song, musical genre, or soundscape that you feel fits with your adjectives, sounds, and most importantly the work of art. A soundscape would be a situation or environment that is made up of many different sounds.

Now it’s time for reflection. Why did you choose the adjectives, sounds, songs that you chose? What did you discover about the piece through this activity?

Possible Activity to try:  Before and After

Sometimes artists create works of art that tell a story.  Often, they only show us part of the story, leaving the rest up to us and our imaginations.  

Consider the following work by artist Renée Stout.  Examine the scene she has created and then discuss, or even sketch (with graphite pencils only) what you imagine might have occurred just before or after the moment the artist chose to represent.

Renée Stout (American, born 1958), She Kept Her Conjuring Table Very Neat, 1990, Mixed media assemblage, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, by exchange, 2020.21

Section Three:  The Black Body

The works of art in this section show the complexities of Black American Identity. Artists explore what it means to be Black in America as well as creative expressions such as music, movement, and language.

As you explore the works of art in the third thematic section of the exhibition, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does this object relate to The Black Body or Black Identity? What elements can we see in this image that direct us to themes of identity or representation?
  • Based on your interpretation of the work, what message do you think the artist is trying to tell us?
Possible Activity to try: Beyond the Frame

Using Deborah Robert’s Let Them Be Children (seen below), or another work of your choosing, imagine what the scene beyond the borders of the canvas looks like.  If you choose a sculpture, or a three dimensional work, imagine the scene it would be in and the other objects that might be alongside it.

Take the activity a step further if you wish – using clues from the artwork, sketch the scene that you imagine to be beyond the frame (note:  only graphite pencils are allowed inside VMFA galleries).

Deborah Roberts (American, born 1962), Let Them Be Children, 2018, acrylic, pastel, ink and gouache on canvas, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur & Margaret Glasgow Endowment, 2019.1

Other Engagement Activities to Try

Rename It!

Find a work of art in the space you are drawn to and…

Look at the label and read the title of the work. Imagine you had the power to give it a new title.

What would it be? Why?

Now take a closer look at the artwork.  Can you rename it one more time?


Living Tableau

Artists are intentional when they pose the people in their artwork. Sometimes just by mimicking the poses, viewers can begin to understand more about the art even before we get any information.

Pick a work of art with several figures in it and with annotated label information. Before reading the label, carefully work with members of your group to strike each pose for a “live” version of the scene. If there are only a few of you, take turns posing as different figures. 

As you engage in the different poses, reflect on the following:    

  • How do you feel as a group?
  • How do you relate to one another?
  • What is going on?

Now read the label and compare your experience to what it says. Is there anything you were surprised to learn? What do you want to know more about?

Make it Move

Sometimes art objects seem so quiet and still in the museum, but what if they could come to life?

Examine a sculpture or three dimensional object of your preference.  Imagine taking the object out of the case, off its pedestal or off of the wall. How would you make it move (be careful of the objects in the museum as you move and remember no touching is allowed in the museum)?  

  • Would it run, dance, or swim?
  • Could you use it?
  • Would it join in a game?
  • Would it sing or speak?
  • Would it move slowly or quickly?
  • Could it travel?
  • Would it stay put?

Dirty South Education Space  

After exiting the exhibition, be sure to visit the Educational Space. In this immersive installation, visitors will explore the sonic traditions of the Dirty South by learning about 6 geographical regions of the southeastern United States that stand out as epicenters of southern hip-hop music: 

  • Memphis, Tennessee
  • Houston, Texas
  • New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Miami, Florida
  • Hampton Roads, Virginia

Thank you for visiting VMFA’s special exhibition, The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse!  Pick up a collection connection card to continue your museum journey.  You can also hear a playlist created just for the exhibition here!