In his paintings and installations, Georgia-born artist Travis Somerville references the inherent history of racism toward black individuals in Southern politics and culture. With motifs spanning Jim Crow to the Ku Klux Klan and Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr., Somerville tackles a wide range of race relations in American history. While most of the themes and narratives of the sculptures—which are often made of wood and typically feature drawn or painted portraits—are rooted heavily in the past, Somerville, a white male, uses historical relics and bygone references to challenge his audiences and invite them to question America’s current state.
In light of recent instances of race-related controversy in the news—namely, the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri—the commentary presented through Somerville’s sculptures has become increasingly prevalent. Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by the white officer while unarmed, and his death has sparked civilian outrage and unrest both locally and throughout the country. While the depravity of racial profiling and its potentially fatal consequences has dominated the news since Brown’s death in August, Somerville addressed its historical reality three years prior, with Ballad of George Stinney 2011.
Comprised of two classroom chairs featuring a graphite portrait, tied together with rope, and hanging suggestively from the ceiling, the piece references the tragic tale of George Stinney, a fourteen-year old African American boy executed in 1944. Killed for a crime against a white individual for which, after his death, he was eventually deemed innocent, he remains an example of the systemic racism present in America.
Ultimately, while killed exactly seventy years prior to Brown and still unknown to many, Stinney, through Somerville’s art, is presented to the public as a reminder of America’s prejudice past—and, unfortunately, as a reflection of its present, too.
Be sure to check out his work at Senator Corey Booker‘s office in Newark, New Jersey for a group exhibition featuring Kara Walker and Mickalene Thomas (January 2015), at ARCOmadrid (February 2015), and at a solo booth at VOLTA NY (March 2015).