Shanequa Gay, Ode to Kathryn Johnston, Performance, 933 Neal Street, 2016
with Karen Comer Lowe
Shanequa Gay,2019 , Artist in Studio. Photo Courtesy of Harold Daniels
Shanequa Gay is a multidisciplinary artist working in photography, painting and installation. She is an Atlanta native who received her BA in Painting from The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), summa cum laude, and an MFA at Georgia State University. I became aware of her work in 2017, and presented a solo show of her work, ini-SHE-ation at the Chastain Arts Center in 2019. As a common part of her artistic practice, she created a site-specific ephemeral wall painting for this exhibition. Repetitive Matisse-like shapes of blue covered the wall with her masked Mother and semi-masked daughter as the central focus of the painting. The show also included thematic paintings, drawings and sculpture. The works, while in different media, communicated a narrative of these characters for the viewers to explore.
Shanequa’s work focuses on the multiple universes within the spirit of the Black Woman. This work evaluates tradition, place, storytelling, and subject matter to develop imaginative dialogues and alternative strategies for self-imaging. Through installations, paintings, performance, video, and monumental sculptural figures, the artist creates environments of ritual and memorial, depicting amalgamated images of familiar iconography, new gods, and mythical figures whose lives have been impacted by systemic inequalities. By developing counter and re-imagined narratives that live within the duality of the physical and spiritual worlds, she explores the historical and contemporary social concerns of hybrid cultures through the gaze of the female progenitor, and how these cultures have often been rendered invisible and their identities denied. This manifests through the multiple mediums Shanequa uses and her ephemeral oversized wall paintings.
Shanequa Gay recently designed the cover of SCAD’s annual academic catalog. This catalog is distributed throughout all SCAD campuses, including Savannah, Atlanta, and Lacoste, France, and online. She exhibits her work in private and public spaces and has had work in international publications including Glamour magazine, and ARTnews.
Shanequa Gay, Summoning
Karen Comer Lowe: How did you get started as an artist?
Shanequa Gay: Around 2005/2006, a friend challenged me to stop being a craft artist. She asked me, “How long are you going to be a crafter and when are you going to take your art seriously?”
KCL: What was your first exhibition and were you making art in the style that you are currently creating?
SG: My first show was at the now defunct Art on 5 Gallery, with Andre Thompson. At the time, my work was focused on Black women in church hats. This work was my interpretation of an Ernie Barnes painting; the style was more-so vernacular art within the Black Diaspora. The series was women specific, and pieces like Sunday School or Nosey Neighbor. Thompson put me in the gallery, and I thought that was the biggest thing in the world because I did not have an expectation outside of my crafting. At that time, art for me was a passive income during the holidays.
Shanequa Gay, the unnameable, unspeakable divine ascension 2019, installation: Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw, Georgia
KCL: When did you begin creating the art we know you for now?
SG: During my senior year at SCAD, this series began emerging; I discovered the Fair Game series. The idea of hybridism came from my readings. I continued to research and further develop the idea while pursuing my Master’s degree at Georgia State University. While difficult, the master’s program was the most rewarding experience of my life. The program was really a study of self and I discovered the reason I love celebrating black women. I am in awe of the black women in my family; the women seemed magical to me. There was something mystical in my mind, as a child, about how my mother and grandmother loved me. This was a subject I kept revisiting through my work, a celebration of women, a celebration of black girls. Through the work, I am trying to create agency, to help the world see black women the way that I see them.
KCL: For the visual representation of your figure, how do you want the audience to understand the work?
SG: I don’t want to lead people into my thought process; however, I do want them to see a level of mysticism. I am into world building; I am trying to build a world where black women and girls are dominant and safe, and able to take on the spirit of whatever animal that I give them. Whatever mask they wear or don’t wear, I feel almost like a playwright who is moving characters around a stage, and as the playwright, I am building a visual story about how amazing, mystical and powerful these women are.
Shanequa Gay, It's happening Again,
KCL: You have been creating ephemeral wall paintings as part of your practice. How do you feel about the works being temporary?
SG: I see it no differently than tribal women in the Ndebele who create paintings on the wall and at any given moment, because of the weather, it can be washed away. All things are ephemeral, nothing is forever; my thought process is: if you wanted to see it, you should have been there. And I love the thought of “you should have been there.” There is a level of magician-ship in that; I am creating a circus--it is up one day and gone the next.
KCL: As you are starting to work with more museums and museum spaces, will the ephemeral wall paintings remain a part of your practice?
SG: Yes. Actually, most of my invitations are for the wall paintings and large-scale installations. I love the idea of being able to create scale and engulf the audience in the work.
Shanequa Gay, I Come As Us, 2018, Acrylic / Four Dresses and Paper Sculpture, 10 x 54 feet installation: Sumter County Art Gallery
KCL: Do you have any established relationships with galleries?
SG: Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta sells my photographs and also provides mural opportunities. Outside of that arrangement, I have a dealer who represents me, but I don’t have gallery representation. For me, I need a gallery to give me better opportunity than I can give to myself. However, I do have a team of people working to help me find the right gallery representation.
KCL: You have a dynamic art installation at UMI Restaurant in Atlanta. Your work is throughout the restaurant at the tables and on the walls. The installation forces the public to interact with the work while dining. How did this happen?
SG: My dealer, Courtney Bombeck, introduced me to the owner of the restaurant. He purchased some of my photographs last year and also purchased one image to gift to Elton John.
Earlier this year, he contacted me with the opportunity at UMI Restaurant in Atlanta. So far, I have received at least four commissions from customers of UMI who experienced the art installation. Currently, we are planning to auction the masks off because customers keep asking about how they can get them. The proceeds from the auction will go to The Covenant House.
Shanequa Gay, Ascending Devouts, 2019, cotton pattern design, marcrame hair weave, cardboard mask,10 feet in height installation The Temporary, Atlanta, Georgia
KCL: Do you have your work in museum collections?
SG: At this time, mostly local museums including The Georgia Museum and The Albany Museum. I also have newly acquired work in the Black Rock collection, a global investment management corporation based in New York and that has recently opened an office in Atlanta.
KCL: What are you currently working on?
SG: I am currently preparing for an installation at the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This project was originally scheduled for February/March but was delayed due to COVID-19. I am also showing at the Jones Carter Gallery in Lake City, South Carolina and the Albany Museum. When the pandemic hit, I was initially afraid that I would not be working. Ironically, I have been busier during this time than before the shutdown. It has been incredible! I am so busy that I have to turn projects away. For this, I am grateful.
Shanequa Gay, ini-she-ation, 2019,Installation Chastain Arts Center
KCL: What one piece of advice would you give to anyone who is considering becoming a visual artist?
SG: Bet on yourself; don’t be concerned with whether you are good enough, and don’t be concerned about being satisfactory to other people.
If you feel like you have a gift and an audience, create based on that. Don’t try to jump through art world hoops, or the mainstream art world. I feel like I have created several art worlds. My success and goals are not based on what someone else wants for me. It’s important to decide what success looks like for you. I am going to create because I am a creative. I am an artist, and I will do the work whether I am on trend or not.
Shanequa Gay, Heaven's Gate
KCL: You recently had your work published in Glamour magazine as the backdrop to the portrait of Mayor Bottoms; does this exposure affect your practice differently than a gallery or museum show?
SG: I believe it allows my work to occupy several worlds, which is a goal, for my work to be seen in unconventional ways. Mayor Bottoms sits in front of a mural which is a public artwork, meaning all people passing by are welcomed to engage with it. Galleries and museums might say “all are welcomed,” but they are structured in a way that keeps certain humans at bay.
I created the (re)framing herstory mural celebrating dynamic African-American women from GA, in conjunction with an arts and social justice initiative commissioned by the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee and WonderRoot (a now defunct arts organization), yet another alternative to the mainstream art world. The Glamour magazine backdrop introduces my art to an audience that might not otherwise cross paths with it. The 'Castelli' method of galleries and museums being the only gatekeepers to success in the art world is a bit antiquated, as there are many pathways and many art worlds that a twenty-first century artist can create and occupy for herself.
Shanequa Gay, an Atlanta native, received her BA in Painting from The Savannah College of Art and Designand an MFA at Georgia State University. Gay’s work evaluates place, tradition, storytelling, and subject matter to develop imaginative dialogues and alternative strategies for self-imaging. Through installations, paintings, performance, video, and monumental sculptural figures, she fabricates environments of ritual and memorial. By developing counter and re-imagined narratives that live within the duality of physical and spiritual worlds, she explores the historical and contemporary social concerns of hybrid cultures, through the gaze of the African-Ascendant female progenitor.
Karen Comer Lowe is currently working at the oldest arts center in Atlanta, Chastain Arts Center.
She has been a curator in museums, galleries, and arts institutions for over twenty years. She has curated a number of groundbreaking exhibitions, with artists such as Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, Pam Longobardi, Radcliffe Bailey and Elizabeth Catlett amongst others. She is currently producing a series on Instagram Live, called "Creative Conversations". These are casual conversations highlighting the artistic practice of artists, creatives and arts professionals within the African Diaspora. Past featured guests include Alfred Conteh, Sheila Pree Bright and Halima Taha.