“Southern Gothic” explores artistic representations of the dark history of the Southeastern United States.
Elliott Erwitt, Southern Charm / Alabama, 1955, negative 1955; 1977 print, gelatin silver print. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Hunter; PH.978.28.9. © Elliot Erwitt. Object photography by Matthew Zayatz. Source: Courtesy of Alison M. Palizzolo
Elliott Erwitt, Southern Charm / Alabama, 1955, negative 1955; 1977 print, gelatin silver print. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James Hunter; PH.978.28.9. © Elliot Erwitt. Object photography by Matthew Zayatz.
Source: Courtesy of Alison M. Palizzolo
On January 14, the Hood Museum of Art hosted intern Conroy Abigail Smith ’23 for the final episode of the museum’s “A Space for Dialogue” series. At the Hood’s first in-person conference since winter 2020, Smith discussed his curated collection, “Southern Gothic,” which examines the complex and often macabre world of the southeastern United States. With pieces from the Jim Crow era to the 2010s, Smith’s collection aims to capture both the dark and light of the Southern Gothic era, according to promotional materials for the event.
Smith, an art history major from Macon, Georgia, drew on her Southern roots to create the exhibit and tell the story of the Southeast.
“In doing Southern Gothic, my goal was to uplift minority groups and bring attention to many social issues that I believe have gone on for far too long in the Southeast,” Smith said.
Smith said she was trying to tackle the ways in which public perceptions of the South can inhibit positive change in the region through its conservation.
“Southern Gothic” is a literary genre popularized by Southern writers that features supernatural themes while showcasing the South’s complicated and dark history, often relating to racism and other social issues in the region. To turn this into visual art, Smith searched the Hood Collection for pieces related to the South, the Civil Rights era, Reconstruction, and the Great Depression while looking for a dramatic black and white palette. .
During the gallery conference, Smith gave a presentation in which she discussed her curatorial process and the motivation behind “Southern Gothic”. Smith went into detail about the vibrant color of the walls, “Haint Blue”, seen on the ceilings of the porches and the entrance doors in the south, which was once used to ward off malevolent spirits by the Gullah Geechee people, who are descendants of enslaved Africans.
Emily Hester ’23 said she came to the conference with a basic understanding of Southern history, but left with a whole new perspective.
“I had no idea what Southern Gothic was at all, but I knew a lot about what we learned about Southern history in school,” Hester said. “I think analyzing [Southern history] through an artistic lens and the style of southern art gave me a more intricate design of many pieces [Smith] was talking.
Lisa Sumi ’23 said she left the gallery talk with more knowledge about the relevance of the Southern Gothic genre.
“I really liked how most of the pieces were black and white, but I liked how [Smith] added two color images at the end,” Sumi said.
Amelia Kahl ’01, Hood’s curator of college programming, said the care and craftsmanship Smith put into her show came together to create a magnificent exhibit.
“[Smith] always has a great story to tell,” Kaul said. “She’s really connected to her family and, on the show, reflects on her southern identity.”
The Hood’s trainees had never worked with the niche Southern Gothic genre before – Kahl described Smith’s idea of linking visual art with the literary genre as “brilliant”. However, the task was not without its challenges, as some photos Smith wanted to display could not be displayed.
“If something I wanted on my show had been on the air for the last few years, it couldn’t come out because, if [the photographs] are in the gallery, they are damaged,” Smith said. “So you have to be very frugal about how often you post certain pieces.”
Smith thinks Leonard Freed’s photo “Press Conference with Atlanta Police Chief Lee P. Brown at Task Force Headquarters” best represents his goal of shedding light by exploring the darkness of history of South. The photo is from the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981, when 25 black children went missing and were found brutally murdered. At the time, the head of the investigation was only able to make an arrest for two of the murders.
Recently, authorities reopened the investigation and collected the DNA of dozens of other children who were killed.
Smith said public awareness of the murders has increased thanks to more media on the subject, such as the HBO series “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered,” adding to public pressure to reopen the case.
“Right now things are hopefully looking up, and the reason for that is that we’re giving them more national attention,” Smith said. “If we paid more attention to the problems of the South, we could help people who need that attention badly.”
Smith said the most “Southern Gothic” piece and the focal point of the brochure is “Breakfast Room, Belle Grove Plantation” by Walker Evans, a photographer supported by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program. The photo depicts an ornate breakfast room in the abandoned Belle Grove Plantation in Louisiana.
“It was probably once a nice house,” Smith said. “But during its most opulent times, its walls were filled with ugliness. When this building was at its height, many suffered.
The Belle Grove plantation reached its peak during the antebellum era as its residents exploited slave labor for their own livelihood, Smith said.
Smith noted that her hope for the show is to draw attention to the South, with the goal of helping change negative perceptions of the region that prohibit productive change.
“I think artists have a deep ability to uplift people by showcasing the realities they live in,” Smith said. “Not abandoning the South is not an endorsement of those who hurt, but an affirmation of those who have been hurt. The reality in the South is that we are constantly haunted by our own past, but we must recognize it in order to have a better future. For me, Southern Gothic was an opportunity to consider the complex heritage of the place I call home.
“Southern Gothic” will be exhibited in the Gutman Gallery in the Hood until February 27. A recording of “Space for Dialogue Gallery Talk” will be available on Hood’s YouTube channel.