West Palm Beach sculpture highlights area’s Black History

The city of West Palm Beach, FL has a new, large-scale, site-specific public art commission by mixed-media artist Nekisha Durrett titled, Genius Loci. The sculpture, which is inspired by the form of a RCA gramophone, symbolizes the physical manifestation of music as well as amplifying voices that have been systematically marginalized by history.

Located in Heart & Soul Park in West Palm Beach, Genius Loci, meaning “spirit of a place,” is inspired by the former Sunset Lounge, a famed jazz club dubbed the “Cotton Club of the South,” and the history of The Styx, the Black community in Palm Beach that was burned to the ground in 1910. The Heart & Soul Park and the Sunset Lounge were redeveloped and are currently owned by the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

The sculpture is made up of copper sheeting supported by concrete resembling charred wood and invites the public to contemplate what voices of Palm Beach Black history would be amplified from the earth itself. The public commemoration for Genius Loci took place December 1, 2023, kicking off West Palm Beach’s New Wave Art Weekend with an artist talk and marching band celebration.

“There is history within the very earth of this location, our goal with this artwork is to figuratively amplify the voices from the past,” artist Nekisha Durrett said. “Taking inspiration from the numerous Black performers who performed at the Sunset Lounge, the sculpture takes the shape of a gramophone speaker. I once heard Duke Ellington refer to the air shaft of a Harlem tenement as a loudspeaker because of the way it broadcast the sounds of life from within the private spaces into public space. Black spaces for living, leisure, and entertainment have often offered respite and safety from a hostile world and that’s what the Sunset Lounge was for the Northwest community.”

West Palm Beach and The Styx

In the late 19th century, Standard Oil tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler brought the Florida East Coast Railway from West Palm Beach to Miami. The promise of jobs drew Caribbean and formerly enslaved people from all over the country, resulting in as many as 2,000 Black migrants forming a settlement called The Styx in Palm Beach.

Women of The Styx worked as chambermaids, laundresses, cooks, and nursemaids, while the men stayed in town during the week and had families living in the area that eventually became West Palm Beach. In time, Flagler hired Black laborers to build two hotels in Palm Beach: The Breakers and Royal Poinciana.

This led to white millionaires who had built their mansions on the waterfront, but owned land that stretched across the island having ownership of The Styx property. They used this as an opportunity to rent their backyards at a cost of $3.00 per month to the laborers, most of which were artisans who built their homes using found driftwood and palmettos.

By the early 1900s, The Styx had become the place that many wanted to get rid of. By 1904 local police began to “clean out” the Styx using eminent domain and other means that are difficult to verify because of selective record keeping. In 1910, The Styx burned to the ground.

By 1912, the area formerly known as The Styx was subdivided into 230 residential lots.

“Given the rich history of this community, it is essential to continue to preserve the culture of this neighborhood and tell the stories of the contributions and history of the people that impacted the community and the entire city of West Palm Beach,” Alisha R. Winn, Ph.D., Applied Cultural Anthropologist, said. “This artwork is a symbolic representation of the strength and resiliency of our people, past and present. It sheds a more positive light on this great neighborhood.”

Genius Loci also pulls inspiration from a poem by David Whyte. The poem reminds us that throughout history, the word genius was not used so much to describe individual people, but rather as a way to describe places – and almost always with the word loci. Therefore, “Genius Loci” is defined as “the spirit of a place” that brings together “all of the struggles of your ancestors in arriving together and giving birth to you; the landscape in which you were nurtured; the dialect in which you were educated into the world; the smells of the local environment.”

As such, the sculpture is intended to honor those who lost their lives in the fire and amplify the voices and people that made the community possible.

ABOUT NEKISHA DURRETT

Nekisha Durrett is a mixed-media artist who employs the visual language of mass media to bring forward histories that objects, places, and words embody, but are not often celebrated. Her expansive practice includes public art, social practice, installation, painting, sculpture and design.

Through deep research and material investigation, Durrett finds historical traces in the present that are filled with stories easily overlooked. Her work contemplates biases and the unreliability of memory, as information is filtered over time.

Durrett illuminates individual and collective histories of Black life and imagination, addressing her own younger self and the stories she wished she had learned.

She is the 2023 Howard University Social Justice Consortium Artist-in-Residence, and a finalist for the 2023 Janet and Walter Sondheim Art Prize. Durrett has recently been awarded the commission for the ARCH Project at Bryn Mawr College in partnership with Monument Lab.

ABOUT ARTLIFE WPB: PUBLIC ART FOR AN INSPIRED CITY

ArtLife WPB is the public art program of the City of West Palm Beach, FLife projects capture the diverse, contemporary beat and rich history that make West Palm Beach a destination city.

ArtLife WPB curates, commissions, and presents a variety of projects created by artists at all career levels.

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