What does fantasy look like from the perspective of a strong, confident, southern Black woman? That’s just one of the questions that multimedia artist Shanequa Gay asks with her work.
Inspired by her family history and African American traditions, Gay embraces a sense of play when conceptualizing her colorful works. Using a range of materials that include oil paints, acrylics, photographs, watercolors, fabric, spray paint, vinyl, and even hair weave, she crafts figural works that pose open-ended questions and entice the viewer to consider their own perceptions.
Hybridity is a theme that Gay explored in her work for more than a decade. Her first body of work that involved hybridity was called “The Fair Game Project” and dealt with social issues surrounding the African American male body.
Ultimately, Gay began experiencing outrage fatigue and moved away from the theme, though she never abandoned the concepts behind the work. Later, when pursuing her MFA from Georgia State University, she found herself reevaluating the work she produces. “Hybridity wasn’t something I wanted to let go,” she said, and she found ways to explore that theme in new ways.
Gay’s current body of work features Black women’s bodies topped with otherworldly animal heads often in celestial settings. She explained that by combining two figures that are sometimes villainized in popular culture to create whimsical and wise characters she was able to grant them an ethereal majesty.
“I began to develop these figures called the ‘devouts’ by kind of pulling from the women in my family and ancestors and those who are living: my mom, my grandmother, my aunts,” Gay continued. “They all have these characteristics of strength, of elegance, and of beauty.”
The animals she chose also exhibit those same virtues, and by uniting them she magnifies their significance.
“Currently they have these kind of gazing ancestral eyes, and all sorts of tropes of what it means to me to be African Atlantan,” said Gay.
Gay is also inspired by a conversation between Gloria Steinem and bell hooks in which Steinem talked about how, over the course of 3,000 years, Egyptians began to take divinity away from women and animals. Hooks then talked about how African Americans cannot ever truly decolonize their minds if they can’t imagine themselves as divine.
Gay’s portrait subjects have a majestic air about them, observing, celebrating, and uplifting icons of Blackness. She wants to grant women and girl-child figures a “language of divinity” as well as celebrate native animals.
Gay grew up in a deeply religious household cloaked by belief (her mother is a pastor), and while she doesn’t untie herself from her Christian background, she has given herself permission to ask questions in a way that she was not allowed to as a child.
The elements of fantasy that arise in Gay’s work highlight a disparity in popular culture: the lack of portrayals of Black women as protagonists, especially in fantasy and futuristic worlds. “The only time I ever saw women who look like me in space travel was ‘Star Trek,’” said Gay.
“Very rarely are we centered, so I wondered, what does that look like?”
In essence, these works that cross between realism in the depictions of female form, recognizable representations of the African American and specifically southern Black experience, animal iconography, and bold, graphic design elements, constitute an on-going conversation that Gay has with herself. At times she uses her artwork and her platform to bring attention to worthy causes that are often devastating in nature.
One such example is an altar of sorts that she created with paper flower artist Bolanle Pace to honor the life of a young Clark Atlanta University woman, Alexis Crawford, who was brutalized and murdered by her roommate and her boyfriend. The exhibition at Mint gallery back in 2019 featured a stark black wall and floor that was painted with the woman’s portrait and complemented by paper flowers. Gay then encouraged visitors to write notes on flower petals to honor lost, missing, and murdered Black girls.
Another particularly moving and haunting work was the 2016 “Ode to Kathryn Johnson” performance piece where Gay donned a blue bull head and read poetry, danced, sang, prayed, and shared readings. The intent of this exhibition was to bring attention to the life of Kathryn Johnson, the 92-year-old Black woman killed by Atlanta police officers during an illegally obtained warrant who later planted drugs in the house.
“Being able to stretch myself in my work is really important,” Gay said. “I don’t want to be stagnant, so the ability to be able to speak about different things through different media is really important to me. That is who I have been all my life. Growing up I wrote plays, I wrote poems, I played violin, I painted, I sang, I danced, I was the drill team captain… I did 50 million things as a kid, so being able to engage and speak in a variety of different ways has always been important to me.”
With an extensive CV that includes more than 16 solo exhibitions, 17 group shows, 20-plus listed collections (including Elton John), along with 12 listed awards and grants, Gay is certainly an esteemed and prolific artist. In October 2021 she participated in an Af-flux Transnational Black Biennial called Monde Bossale in Quebec, Canada. The exhibition sought to highlight Black communities and their contributions to the contemporary art world, and the invitation to exhibit highlights just how instrumental and important Gay’s work is both locally and abroad.
“There is a lack of people who look like me in a lot of spaces that are white walled with only white males. My narrative belongs there as much as anyone else’s,” affirmed Gay. “I belong there, I think I belong in the canon. I believe in my work enough to be bold enough to say we can send this out into the world.”
After our interview, Gay learned she’s been invited to participate in the 59th annual Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious art exhibitions in the world, being held from April to November in Italy.