Where shall we begin? In the flooded Ninth Ward of New Orleans? At the rural roadside gas station and barbecue joint? Among the Latino migrant workers in Immokalee? With Confederate re-enactors, or with counter-protesters at the “White Power” march? Along the Underground Railroad, hidden by the trees and the night?
Or perhaps we should first look at the people of “intentional communities” who live outside the mainstream, or the beekeeper, or the children playing in the water, or the zebra racers, or the people who gather at Po’ Monkey’s juke joint.
Where ever you choose to look, the sprawling show “Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South” offers an unexpected view of this vast and contradictory region. That’s really the point, organizers say, for the South cannot be reduced to a simple sentence.
The exhibit, mounted by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, features the work of 56 artists, divided between two venues: the Halsey’s galleries and City Gallery at Waterfront Park. All of the images were produced during the 21st century. It’s the Halsey’s biggest project in its history, and “the largest show of photography ever undertaken about the South,” said Halsey director Mark Sloan.
The show, spearheaded by Sloan and co-curator Mark Long, is the product of 4-1/2 years of planning, fundraising, research, travel, essay writing, video production, collaborations with graphic and web designers, poets and writers and musicians, and coordination with the College of Charleston, the city of Charleston and others.
The exhibition is just part of a multifaceted $350,000 project that includes extensive event programming, education outreach, academic collaboration, online content, music production and an enormous physical catalog.
Sloan and Long have met weekly since 2014 to meet photographers (more than 600 of them, mostly online), examine their work and narrow the field. The images chosen are so numerous that the Halsey galleries couldn’t accommodate all of them. The "Southbound" website will include all 550; the exhibition will feature 220. About half will be on view at the Halsey, though to manage even that a special structure had to be designed, built and installed in the large gallery, providing an additional 120 linear feet of wall space. The other half of the photographs will be mounted at the City Gallery.
Three “Southbound” artists — Rachel Boillot, Titus Brooks Heagins and John Lusk Hathaway — and one Charleston-based memoirist, Cinelle Barnes (author of “Monsoon Mansion”), will hold writing and photography workshops at seven local schools that examine the theme of community and the power of storytelling. Students from Burke High School, Palmetto Scholars Academy, St. John's High School, Haut Gap Middle School, Fort Dorchester High School, Rollings Middle School and Goose Creek High School will get a chance to visit the exhibition, and the “Southbound” photographers will select student work to exhibit at the end of the school year.
The education outreach component of “Southbound” is funded by a $30,000 grant.
The Halsey partnered with Gil Shuler Graphic Design to produce the 382-page, large-format book; Buff Ross of OneWordDesign to build the unique website (southboundproject.org); filmmaker John Reynolds to make several videos; musician Bill Carson to provide a soundtrack; and musicologist Jake Fussell to create a “Southbound” playlist.
Writers who contributed essays to the catalog are poet Nikky Finney, arts writer Eleanor Heartney, folklorist William Ferris and foodways writer John T. Edge. Co-curator Long, a professor of political geography, worked with Rick Bunch to create an “Index of Southerness,” which takes into account a range of county-level data sets to produce cluster maps that show where Southerness is concentrated.
No wonder the project took more than four years to put together.
“This is the Halsey widescreen,” Sloan said.
The show wasn’t meant to be this big at first, but the plan for showing the work of 40 photographers expanded to 50, and then to 56 as Sloan and Long extended their travels and scrutiny of artists’ portfolios.
“We hit saturation at some point,” Sloan said. “We started seeing (the work of) artists again and again.” That’s when they knew they could finalize the curatorial process. “Since then, we have seen another dozen great artists,” Sloan added. They will have to wait for the next show.
Long said modern online communication made it possible to contact so many artists and assess so much of their work.
“In the good old days, they couldn’t possibly have pulled this off,” he said.
Sloan and Long approached their job with an open mind. They welcomed a huge variety of work in an effort to meet their goals. They sought racial and economic diversity, representations of all the seasons and the many settings of the South: rural and urban, flat and mountainous, wet and dry, wild and cultivated. And they wanted to avoid cliche.
“We wanted to make sure there was not a preponderance of downtrodden people working in the fields,” Sloan said. “We tried to provide a broad idiosyncratic slice, a fairly accurate snapshot of the South in the 21st century. … We wanted to show things that would be surprising.”
Long added that this variety of images stimulates a rethinking of the region.
“We wanted to create dialogue between the images, between versions of the South,” he said.
Edge, director of Southern Foodways Alliance and author of “The Potlikker Papers,” said it’s precisely the diversity of images that appeals most to him.
“I liked this project because of its focus upon contemporary Southern culture and its implicit promise to dispel and dissuade myths about the South,” he said. “A lot of the work I intend aligns similarly. How do we tell true stories about this place?”
The embrace of true diversity has the effect of erasing, or at least weakening, labels like “The South,” which are laden with preconceived notions, he said.
“And that’s what this show offers us: a moment of meditation to see our place … in new and honest ways.”
Edge contributed an essay titled “Cloaking and Costuming the South” in which he discusses two poignant photographs that appear in the show: one by Susana Raab called “Finger-Lickin’ Good” of three men dressed as Col. Sanders, and one by Tamara Reynolds called “Jimmy Kelley’s Restaurant” of an African-American waiter.
He wrote the essay in one sitting. “I was full of vinegar that day,” Edge said. “Thinking about the cloaks we wear in daily life, the cloaks the South requires of us, got me writing.”
He said it’s encounters with others, and with their creative output, that stimulates new ideas about the region, he said.
“If you are an (artist) and you live and work in the South, you are thinking through this place in your work in some way,” Edge said. “As I grow older and think about what inspires me and what challenges me, often what I find most rewarding is when I cross genres. Those conversations take me out of my food ghetto and put me in touch with other artists. That’s the promise of a project like this.”
Jerry Siegel lives in Atlanta now, but he was born and raised in Selma, Ala., and returns regularly to his family home, which becomes a base of operation for numerous photography projects. He’s been shooting pictures in the “Black Belt” — portraits, landscapes, structures, interiors, events — some of which are part of the “Southbound” show.
Among the most striking of his pictures is one of an African-American girl at the county fair shooting a rifle at targets above which hangs a Confederate Flag. The girl seems oblivious to the flag, yet there it is, a symbol of oppression in juxtaposition to the subject of the photo, taken for granted.
“I was not aware of the flag either,” Siegel said. “I was looking at this girl with the gun.”
These unexpected moments captured by Siegel and the other photographers often are what undermine preconceived ideas about the South. At the same time, many of the photos, including Siegel’s, convey a strong sense of place. He said his goal is to examine the cracks and crevices of his hometown.
He has taken pictures of his family house, of the kudzu growing rampant, of old signs, storefronts, gas stations and people, lots of people.
“It’s a contemporary view of the rural South,” Siegel said. “I think of myself as a portrait photographer. It’s a portrait of a house, a portrait of a community, a portrait of a town. You don’t have to have a person in there for it to be a portrait. … It’s all about people and telling stories. That’s what I hope these pictures do.”
The exhibit opens Friday, Oct. 19, at the Halsey and City Gallery and runs through March 2. Then it hits the road, first landing at the Greg Museum of Art and Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, then on to Power Plant Gallery at Duke University in Durham; Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn.; LSU Museum of Art at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian; and possibly other locations. The photographs will be on display somewhere in the South through 2022.
"Our hope is that over the long haul people can revisit this to look at and to understand the South in 2018,” Sloan said. “This will be a marker.”