What started as a story of segregated proms turned into large scale awareness about racial prejudice. University of Wisconsin alumni Gillian Laub’s “Southern Rites” exhibit at the Chazen Museum of Art highlights Mount Vernon, Georgia — a small town with a past of racist traditions.
Back in 2002, Laub traveled to Mount Vernon on a magazine assignment to photograph the lives of teenagers in the south. This visit uncovered much more than expected. Besides the warm and friendly Montgomery County residents who lived a small town American life, Laub said high school homecomings and proms in the area were still racially segregated. It was not until 2010 that these dances became integrated, after The New York Times Magazine published Laub’s photographs.
In this exhibit, Laub tells the stories of these Southern teenagers during major transitional years. Both photos from the 2009 black and white proms and the 2010 integrated prom are displayed at the exhibit. Each of these photos is accompanied by quotes of those photographed.fi
These photos not only documented the visual realities of racial segregation, but told a story of deeply rooted racist beliefs. Some did not consider the Confederate flag to be racist, and others felt the segregated proms weren’t a big deal. Hispanic teens got to choose which prom to attend because authority figures didn’t know how to classify them, and the prom queen at the last black prom turned down a scholarship to a private college for fear of being one of the only black girls there.
But this story doesn’t end with the prom. Mid-way through the exhibit, the story of Justin Patterson is told in the same style of photography accompanied by a short video. Patterson lived in Montgomery County and attended the prom with one of Laub’s most photographed subjects, Keyke Burns. Laub intertwined his story to her overall theme of the exhibit with poise.
Built as a continuation of “Southern Rites,” a group of UW students referred to as The Studio Arts Collective created a response exhibit titled “A Night to Remember.” The full installation will not be complete until Feb. 14, but for now the room’s highlight features a chalkboard for visitors to share their own stories of feeling separate because of their identity.
On top of striking photography, “Southern Rites” had exceptionally written content to help shed light on the realities of the South just 10 short years ago.
Laub’s exhibit is on display at the Chazen until May 12.