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In the Heart of Dixie, Art Is Social Commentary

Mississippi artist Johnnie Mae Maberry reflects on what it means to create in the heart of the American South.

Johnnie Mae Maberry

This article originally appeared on Creators.

As part of 50 States of Art, Creators is inviting artists to contribute first-person accounts of what it is like to live and create in their communities. Johnnie Mae Maberry is a visual artist and Associate Professor of Art at Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, MS.

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!

(Daniel Emmitt, 1859)

Strange how the lyrics of the Dixieland tune comes to mind when thinking about Mississippi's past and present. The relevance of that statement depends on who is doing the talking. There are those who celebrate and dance to the lyrics and tune of "Dixieland," while there are Others who frown at the lyrics and the meaning they represent. I am the voice of one of the Others.

Mississippi is the heartland of the South, a place that is steeped and deeply rooted in traditions. So much so, that the Confederate flag waves prominently on all government flag poles and the battle flag's saltire is still part of the Mississippi flag. The Mississippi flag is the only state flag to include the Confederate flag symbol. This unique social, political, and structural reality dominates my artistic production. I am an artist who believes that the gift of creating art is packaged with responsibility and purpose. That responsibility propels the artist beyond self-gratification. It mandates the charge to make a difference. I have chosen to use my art as a way to offer a different perspective; give a rationale for why the Confederate flag is an objectionable object to many. I suppose you may say that I am a social commentary artist.

Johnnie Mae Maberry, 'Invitation to a Barbecue'

Social commentary is not the goal of many artists in my art community. From blues to catfish frying, Mississippi is a land of creative opportunities. Artists who prefer to focus on nature will not lack a scene to replicate. Moss laden trees, magnolia blossoms, wisteria in the breeze, or springtime blossoms radiate from the canvas in realistic styles from various painting, printmaking, and drawing media. Artists on the coast replicate the beach, seashells, and herons. Walter Anderson and George Ohr continue to be the star artists of the Biloxi Coast. Included in the art community are those who prefer to focus on the many sides of culture by giving an ethnic persuasion to Kandinsky's love of music. Compositions of color, saxophones, drums, bass guitars, dancers and the keyboard seem to sway to sounds of Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and many others.

While there are challenges to being an artist in almost any location, Mississippi artists must also struggle to overcome the stigmas that have come from our history and some of the current media coverage. Here is the thing to remember: Not only can we (Mississippians) write, sing, dance, excel in any sport, play any type of musical instrument, perform, broadcast, etc. but we visual artists can also create beautiful, dynamic, sometimes disturbing, and important art.

To learn more about Johnnie Mae Maberry, click here.

All year, we're highlighting 50 States of Art projects around the United States.