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Art can expose real Natchez

When Birney Imes’ photographs of juke joints from the Mississippi Delta were published in 1990, it introduced, to many people, a world that few knew existed.

Fifty-eight images in all, Imes’ images unveiled the rich and strange world of these drinking shanties in the flatlands of the Mississippi River. The photographs revealed the innate beauty of these ramshackle interiors with deteriorating walls, sagging ceilings decorated with spray-painted artwork and hand-lettered signs in these gritty establishments that dot the Delta landscape.

The photos explored a world hidden in plain sight from many Southerners and challenged the very notion of what beauty is and where it can found.

Twenty years later, Imes’ critically acclaimed images hang in the finest museums and galleries in the world. These timeless images continue to capture the imagination.

That is what the best art does. Whether music, painting, sculpture or other media, the finest art transforms, challenges and unveils. It finds beauty and reveals truths that affirm who we are whether we admit it or not.

Do an image search for Natchez on the Internet. Whether you use Google, Bing or Yahoo, thousands of images will pop up on your screen. None will be like the 23 images that go on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson this weekend.

Instead of large antebellum mansions, sweeping views of the Mississippi River or steamboats paddling up stream, local photographer Marcus Frazier has trained his camera on a different part of the Natchez experience.

Like Imes, much of Frazier’s work focuses on the interiors of black clubs and bars. In Frazier’s case the clubs are in Natchez. Where Imes’ photographs are largely devoid of the human figure, Frazier’s color images are packed with gyrating bodies, waving hands and faces. Long exposures give some of the images an ethereal quality. In a few cases, faces take on a three-dimensional quality that almost burst from the frame.

Frazier’s work is part of the biennial exhibit called the Mississippi Invitational. Since 1997, the Mississippi Museum of Art has asked curators from across the state to choose artists that represent the best Mississippi has to offer. Every two years, artists are asked to submit examples of their work for review. This year 161 artists submitted for consideration.

Frank Sirmans, department head and curator of Contemporary Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, selected 18 artists from the 161 entries to visit personally in their studios. He then invited 13 of those artists to exhibit their work. This year’s works range from quilts to photographs, from painting to sculpture.

Frazier was one of four photographers selected by Sirmans. A former photographer for The Democrat, Frazier now focuses primarily on his artwork that unveils an aspect of Natchez that is rarely documented. His art is fresh and new and is indeed challenging to those who are not familiar with the club experience in Natchez. There is an energy and an in-your-face quality in his images that is popular among today’s young generation of artists. Some might consider the images shocking. In the end they just might reveal something about where we live that we might not care to admit.

The exhibit starts Saturday and continues through Feb. 5, 2012. The Mississippi Museum of Art is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday and is closed Monday. The cost of admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children and free for museum members.

Ben Hillyer is the design editor of The Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.