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may all beings be happy, 2022, market sari, acrylic and latex paint, and yoga mats, 48.5" x 34" by Preetika Rajgariah. Courtesy the artist

Issue 124, Spring 2024

Prologue: Dredging the Sea

From the start of my career as an art researcher back in 2002, my approach to searching for images to use as an illustrative accompaniment to the written word has been the same: I get as granular as time will allow. One colleague calls my exhaustive style of research “dredging the sea.” Ferreting out artwork that contains layers of little coincidences and connections to details of a particular story gives me an unmatched thrill. It’s my version of scattering Easter eggs, and even if it’s so obscure that almost no one will get it, I am always tickled when I have found unexpected threads to weave existing artwork and the written word together, and by the fact that before the moment they accompanied one another in our pages, neither knew a thing about the other.

When editor Danielle Amir Jackson proposed that we devote our spring issue to Southern art, I was psyched. But also a little stressed. To truly focus on Southern art without leaning too heavily on the region’s more famous artists—art-world famous, not regular-world famous like Sally Mann—would be tricky, because we’ve already published many of them: Amy Sherald, Kerry James Marshall, Jeffrey Gibson, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Hernan Bas, Tommy Kha, Anastasia Samoylova, Deborah Roberts, and so on; and to include a representative group while not shying away from familiar topics, such as slavery. On top of all that, I also wanted to introduce fresh possibilities for what your mind’s eye conjures when the phrase “Southern art” is uttered.

But what do I even mean by Southern art? All of these: work by an artist from the South, or currently or previously residing in the South; non-Southern artists with family ties to the South; and artists who have made focused work about the South. It boils down to geography and has little to do with the subject matter or style, even though regional art-world trends do exist and similar themes do come up—for random example, in the same way that palm trees in art from my home state of California (yes, I confess, it is true) are not few and far between, images of kudzu proliferate in the South. But the point is certainly not to pigeonhole a massive, multifaceted, and, in every sense, diverse region, nor to force stylistic or philosophical commonalities between disparate works. There is a vast amount of talent born, bred, or bunking in Southern states, making spectacular, sophisticated work about anything and everything. The artistic soil of the South is fertile indeed. Instead, I seek out regional delicacies to share with our readers (who are also from everywhere), aiming to make each issue a worthy addition to our ongoing chronicle depicting the breadth of culture that exists in the South. If, after perusing each new issue, you’ve seen something that demonstrates an aspect of the South beyond what you knew before picking up the magazine, we have all won.

But! Although my springboard in general is the seeking of Southern art, I always widen the search to consider artists from anywhere, the aim being to fill our pages with a multitude of viewpoints. Are we including artists who reflect the full spectrum of humanity? Ideally, we are. I appreciate seeing the overlaps and commonalities between regions, which are usually greater than some histories would have us know.

We also must cast our nets for artwork that perfectly reflects the tone of the story it’s intended to illustrate, fits within the issue overall, and stands on its own without too closely echoing the subject matter or style of any other art in the issue. It also must be mentioned that it takes more hours to find artists who haven’t gained a certain amount of notoriety and don’t have gallery representation. The vast majority of artists are making work outside of their day (or night) jobs and probably aren’t spending significant time publicizing their own work (via social media, connecting with other artists, submitting work to open calls to group shows, etc.). These artists are more difficult to come across. But in the time we have to produce each issue, only a certain amount of dredging is possible.

That said, we strive to publish the best artwork we are able to. For this issue, to our great delight, we have focused on work about the South—from artists from and not from the region, but all with solid ties. We have collected words and work from creators of photography, paintings, drawings, mixed media, textile, and ceramic works from Texas, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, and Oklahoma, as well as work made with reverence and care in and about the trails and rivers of Virginia.

The art and stories throughout the issue imagine and recast maps, borders, and the very notion of time. We follow people across borders within Africa and North and Central America; and we contemplate colonialism and the global society it has created. We ponder what these legacies have been, and wonder what they will be.

A few highlights for me, among many: Queens, New York–born, Chicago-residing Dawoud Bey, whose brilliant work graces our features section and who has familial ties to the South. His quietly epic, ongoing [?] project depicting landscapes traversed by enslaved individuals who liberated themselves, on their way northward to states where slavery was illegal, whispers subtle power and channels eras past into our contemporary moment.

Performing a twenty-first-century reverse migration, multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker RaMell Ross surreptitiously has himself transported—via ground shipping—from North to South, a voyage rife with significance, both historic and present day.

Since coming across her work a few years ago, I have been eager to conjure a spot for Dianna Settles’s paintings in our pages. Her spring-y and sweet painting My butterfly year graces our cover. Introspective and reflective (that’s Settles in the window’s reflection), it possesses a softness and subtlety but hints at the exacting nature and aspects of revolution within her practice, which she spoke about with me for an interview inside the issue. The cover also features a cameo by photographer Akasha Rabut, based in New Orleans until recently, in the guise of her book in the stack. We have also previously published Rabut’s work in our pages. This contemplation of art-making, community, and cross-medium inspiration makes this painting the perfect encapsulation of all we are attempting in this issue, focused on Southern art of the modern era.

Alyssa Ortega Coppelman

Alyssa Ortega Coppelman is the art editor of the Oxford American, since 2013. She is also the archival producer for PBS NewsHour’s Brief But Spectacular. Previously, Coppelman was deputy art director at Harper’s Magazine. She resides in Austin, Texas, where she freelances as a photo editor and photobook consultant, including as editor of David Johnson’s It Can Be This Way Always: Images from the Kerrville Folk Festival, published by University of Texas Press.