Artist On The Move: An Interview with Shanequa Gay
by Shantay Robinson
Shanequa Gay is an artist, public speaker, scholar, educator and a mother of a black son. She attended the Art Institute of Atlanta where she studied graphic design. And graduated at the top her class from Savannah College of Art and Design where she received her bachelor’s degree. She is currently working on her Master of Fine Art from Georgia State University. Her work is held in the private collection of Samuel L. Jackson, and Gay was invited to illustrate Michelle Obama’s First Lady Luncheon gift. Gay exhibits her work regularly, and has shown work at Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Emory University, and Atlanta Contemporary Art Center among many other sites. She created a deer/man hybrid for the Fair Game Project from a dream in order to express her concern for the injustice against black men by the hands of rogue police officers. Shanequa Gay’s path is an interesting one to watch.
Although you were an artist in your own right before SCAD what made you decide to go back to school to study more?
I actually went back to SCAD, based upon a loss in my family. Back in 2008, I lost my brother to a car accident. I had been painting up until that point for about three or four years. But I had always been an artist. Normally when I have a difficult situation, I was able to look to my art as catharsis, whereas when my brother died, I actually shut down. So maybe about from 2008 to 2010, I wasn’t doing anything. I wasn’t painting. I wasn’t creating. And I wasn’t able to make myself do that. So, I returned to SCAD in order to do that. I felt like through assignments, I would be able to create. Because it wasn’t something I was able to dig my own feet into. I felt like, as a student, if I was given assignments I would be able to complete those creative assignments and that would push me toward creating for myself. And it did. I was right about that. I also wanted initially to go back to school to finish my BA. But to be quite honest, it was more personal than any educational aspects or revitalizing myself as a creative. I was going back to live because I was literally dying.
Do you feel it is important for you to create?
I do. That’s kind of what I was saying. Not doing it was suffocating me. Not creating was very difficult. I’m a creative person – in every aspect. Even if I did not draw or paint. I do poetry. All creative aspects of me shut down. I wasn’t doing anything. I could have gone on to do other things, but I wasn’t doing anything. Any of those other things that I’m passionate about, music and poetry and writing and dance, I wasn’t doing anything. It is important for me to create because I’m a creative being. I feel like that’s my lifeline. And to not do that, was choking me. You know I went through that before in relationships, sort of like putting myself aside for my partner to be able to be the center of attention, but in that, I was dying. The way to keep myself from dying was to take myself out of that relationship. I feel like I came here as a creative person. That’s my purpose, my call, my lane, that’s the car I drive. That’s the roller coaster I’m on. So, to be a creative person is just a very important part of who Shanequa is. And to not be that and not do that, is a foreign person I’m not necessarily trying to get to know.
How has your education influenced your art work?
It gave me language because initially I feel like I was creating to create and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t feel like I had the language behind what I was doing. Yeah, if it moved me, I was creating it, but not necessarily because I had reference points. I had a historical understanding of why I was doing certain things that I was doing. It helped provide some structure to my wild. However, I appreciate my wild. I appreciate that I came in “unlearned,” which I’m not really. Prior to going to SCAD, I had a degree in Graphic Design and Fashion Marketing from Art Institute of Atlanta. So, I’ve been trained in some aspects. But I feel like for a very long time, I was kind of street based, if you will. Where my creativity was concerned, it wasn’t like I was coming from a space of academia. So, I do feel like it gave me structure and it gave me some necessary tools in order to carry out my gifting and I feel like it was for the better – definitely for the better. I can see my work from when I entered into SCAD to when I left. I grew by leaps and bounds because the language was helping me and the information I was gaining for myself in the school structure definitely helped develop me.
Your work has gone from figurative to more conceptual. Is that how you see it? And what spurred that change?
I see it that way. I’m looking for other ways to talk about my work. There are other ways to approach it. There are many facets to me, as there are to human beings. With conceptual art or installations, they give you an opportunity to step outside the realm that everything has to be in this rectangular space. I’m finding ways of trying to climb out of that space. It has been uncomfortable, but also welcomed. I want other ways to talk about my work. I want other ways to explain the things that are in my head, that I’m reading, the visions that I’m passionate about to actually making the things I dream about a reality. So, I feel like it’s an exciting shift or evolution to my body of work and I’m really excited about it.
What do the deer-men signify?
First of all, the hybrids were developed from a dream state. Most of my art work I dream about- be it dreaming while I’m asleep or daydreaming about it. The hybrids were actually formulated from a sleep dream where these black men were running through the forest and they were shape shifting but they were running from people that looked like them. They were running from police officers. They were running from black men. I just saw them shape shifting from being deer to men so initially, during the Obama administration, we were bombarded by assaults on black men (and I don’t think that was by happenchance.) I’ve actually been listening to Atlanta Monster podcast about the child murders in the seventies which actually happened during the time that Maynard Jackson was elected the mayor of Atlanta. I don’t think that was happenchance. Most of the children that were being killed were black males.
But the hybrids initially were representing black men being hunted. And that’s how I came up with The Fair Game Project. I felt like in every aspect of a black male’s life, they’re being hunted or emasculated in some way. Either the patty wagon, the overseer from slavery period has shifted into being police officers. And that was initially my premise behind that body of work.
However, in reading mythology and becoming consumed by Greek, African, Egyptian — varied forms of mythology, I’ve shifted from being concerned with black men being hunted and looking for ways to see them as bodies of grandeur. People being mythology, this otherness, that should be explored — that is grandiose. That they are something to be feared. That we are these kinds of beautiful, other-like beings. The mysticism of being a black person is actually beautiful. And I’m using my hybrids to speak about that. So, I feel like they’re shifting in meaning for me. And I’m okay with that. I guess one of the things that stood out for me, when you hear about police officers shooting black men and black women, it was always, I feared for my life. And with that, I just was beginning to think they should fear for their life. Maybe there is something to that. There’s an empowerment to that, that people are afraid. And this obsession of being afraid of blackness. Instead of seeing it as a bad thing, see it as something to be empowered by.
I noticed that you changed your color palette. How and why did you make the decision to change the color palette?
As I begin to look at my body of work over all this shifting in and out that I do constantly I haven’t really picked the why. So initially as a youth, growing up, I only did black and whites. I used to just do drawings, sketches, pencil drawings. I always stayed in black and white and it wasn’t until I began painting that I began to color. So, when I look at my women, these kinds of southern women, they had this beautiful bright color palette which was initially something I became used to this beautiful bright color palette and southern culture. But when I began the hybrids, I wanted it to be a narrative like reading black and white, which we do, and I wanted it to be limited in color and digestible. I feel like those were specifically things I was trying to do. A limited color palette makes it digestible and I feel like that muted palette helped me to do that. A black silhouette and the gray background made it very didactic. And yet I’ve shifted again back into color. I have not figured out what that is quite yet. From black and white to color. From gray and black to color. I think that’s also a part of my character. I love color. I feel like color is a necessary language for me and it allows my viewer to engage in a different way than the black and white was extremely didactic, monotone, and muted. And this shifting away of shifting into color feel like it’s developing a different narrative and allowing me to speak about the fables, these tales, and these narratives I’m creating for myself, in a different way.
You say Kara Walker and Aaron Douglas have been inspiration for your work. Do you see your work withstanding time like these artists have?
I think I’ll probably shift focus again. I feel like the hybrids will remain for however long they remain my language. But I’m interested in other things. I’m interested in telling other stories and creating other narratives. I do believe hybrids are a necessary part of my body of work. And I’m not interested in moving away from that. I am one who is not as consistent with a series if I have to tell it in this way or create these rules or I have to create this long extensive work to only be a certain way. I am growing every day by leaps and bounds, and I want to be able to relay that through my body of work, and whatever that looks like. So, it will be hybrids in film, hybrids in music, there are other ways for me to approach the hybrids, but I don’t know how long I will stay with them. But I’m not afraid to stick with them. I’m also not afraid to let them go. Similar to the ladies with church hats. I let that go in order to dance with the hybrids. So, if there comes a time for me to dance with something different, I’m okay with that.
*This interview was conducted in January 2018
Shanequa Gay’s art is currently on view at ZuCot Gallery in a group exhibition, Afreaux, through November 16. And her solo exhibition Carefully Broken, Unfortunately Beautiful will be on view at Converse College’s Milliken Art Gallery through October 25.
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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.
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