I Attended a Black Art Exhibit And 90% of the Crowd Was White

It was uncomfortable — to say the least.

Nia Simone McLeod
5 min readSep 14, 2021


Photo by Daria Sannikova from Pexels

One Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend and I checked out the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” exhibition.

Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, the exhibition is described as “aesthetic impulses of early 20th-century Black culture that have proved ubiquitous to the southern region of the United States.”

Map of United States with major Southern cities mapped out. The map reads “The South got something to say.” — Andre 3000
Photo by author

As I walked through the hallways of the exhibit, I was often stifling tears — for various reasons.

Stifling is an action that I know like the wrinkles in my skin. In my mostly white town, Blackness isn’t acknowledged, let alone celebrated. There are no Black Lives Matter posters. There are no Black community groups. There are barely any Black-owned businesses.

I am always stifling, never playing my favorite music out loud in my backyard, covering up my body to keep peering eyes from staring at it, code-switching to the grocery store cashier.

I’m not used to expressing my Blackness in public. Seeing VMFA’s “The Dirty South” exhibit left me feeling exposed, filled with equal parts of validity and uneasiness.

The piece that made the most impact on me

The exhibit was stunning. It showcased southern Black culture from a lot of different perspectives: religion, landscape, music, etc. As someone who spent the majority of their life in the south, I found myself within a majority of the pieces.

Painting of a Black man with a mask against a white background
Photo by author / Artist Fahamu Pecou’s “Doable To Spirit”

A few times throughout the exhibit, I felt myself on the verge of tears. The most emotional moment was watching a short film by video artist and cinematographer Arthur Jafa entitled “Love Is the Message, The Message is Death”.

Its description stated that the film “presents a portrait of Black life in fragments set to a…



Nia Simone McLeod

Freelance writer covering pop culture, creativity, race + other fun stuff | she/her | Subscribe to my newsletter: https://ohwrite.substack.com/welcome