Two Exhibits at FGCU Art Galleries Celebrate Black History Month

Given the divisive and violent events of the past two years, this is an important time to appreciate the complexities of our shared history as Americans. Since its inception, Florida Gulf Coast University Art Galleries has been dedicated to showcasing contemporary artists dealing with current issues in an effort to help us broaden our perspectives. In honor of Black History Month, two works by very different, yet overlapping artists are on display at the Wasmer Art Gallery and ArtLab on the FGCU campus. The personal stories that inform their work give us pause to ask more questions rather than take sides.

John Loscuito

Purvis Young, born in 1943 in Miami, documented life in the city’s Overtown neighborhood until his death in 2010. Considered an outsider artist, he was self-taught, but highly collected and represented in numerous museum collections. In contrast, Travis Somerville was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1963 and moved throughout the South as a child due to his father’s activism and work as a preacher. Young, who was black, and Somerville, who is white, both saw the need to portray the injustices of their time and environment in their art.

All of Young’s work is about his world and all of his materials have been gleaned from his world. The uninitiated may find it strange to see a frame made from old carpet strips, scrap wood, or mangled signage; however, once his relationship to Overtown is understood, we can see that Young not only portrays through his depictions the essence of a poor black community, but he imbues the works with the spirit of the people using materials from directly from the neighborhood. As in many situations, if we can spend time seeing a different perspective, we may be able to realize a different outcome for our future.

Anica Sturdivant

Collecting found objects and materials is just one of the crossovers between Young and Somerville. They are both painters at heart and express a love of process even though their works are political.

Speaking with Somerville, this became an important point. He talked about finding that balance between creating a work of art and enjoying the process of discovery as well as investigating social and political ideas. This balance of discovery and belief seems like something we all desperately need as we try to find a way to re-engage with each other and our communities. While Somerville’s works challenge injustice and racial inequality, they are also full of humor and playfulness. They don’t have the answers, but rather challenge the viewer to connect the dots and create a narrative that has sense.

Looking at the works of both artists, we see their personal stories. In Young’s, it is the grassroots response to the struggles of the marginalized and neglected in Miami’s impoverished black community. For Somerville, it’s about reconciling the stories of his youth with the ongoing national dialogue. They confront us with the architecture of an HLM juxtaposed with the grid of iron bars of a prison cell; and with contemporary political figures alongside historical events and symbols. They also document a moment in time and provide space for reflection.

As we continue to debate and evolve as a nation, the works of these artists will also be seen from different perspectives as future generations grapple with these issues.

We invite you to visit the campus to discover these two exhibitions. Learn more about fgcu.edu/artgalleries.

John Loscuito is gallery director and Anica Sturdivant is assistant curator at Florida Gulf Coast University.

Mildred D. Field