Shanequa Gay Completes a Work Begun a Century Ago

ATLANTA — Jackson Fine Art, a gallery moderate in size, is filled to the brim with paintings, collages, ceramics, photo transfers on aluminum, quilting, and, suspended overhead, cyanotype transfers on chiffon — not to mention the wallpaper. Despite the laundry list of media, a throughline extends across Shanequa Gay’s Gateway to the South, namely genre scenes depicting Black people in varying levels of abstraction. The exhibition text reveals that much of this imagery is culled from photographs taken by the artist’s maternal great-grandfather, James Battle, cementing this exhibition both firmly in the South and within the artist’s own ancestry. Through the agglomeration of techniques and displacement of familial history, Gay presents the South as a site of cultural diversity and historical reimagining.

Facing the entrance to the gallery, the eponymous painting depicts a Black couple standing in front of a car and freestanding canopy with an anonymous human-like crouched atop it, all enmeshed in raucous patterning and collaging. Each element in the scene — the coat, the dress, the ground, the figures’ legs — features a different pattern and often a different medium. This cacophony of pattern and materials in such a contained space feels strident at times — and yet necessary. The South is widely perceived as being home to “backward” cultural ideals and a deeply homogenous, racist demography. While some aspects of these perceptions may be true, the reduction of an entire region to such platitudes erases its actual diversity. Gay’s application of varied, discordant, and highly saturated coloring and patterning to imagery and iconography endemic to the South represents a visual resistance to reduction, simplification, and flattening of an eclectic, heterogenous, and culturally rich place.

The couple seen in the painting “gateway to the south” are also across from it, in the photograph “the gateway to the south” (1930s–2024). This artwork, a dye sublimation on aluminum dibond, is listed as having two creators: Gay and James Battle. The latter created the original photograph, while the former transposed it to the aluminum surface. Almost a century separates the two parts of the artwork’s creation, during which many major social landmarks — the desegregation of public schools, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the de facto overturning of anti-miscegenation laws — have transpired. These and other rulings have shaped the way that a Black couple is perceived and received within society, transforming perceptions of the original image as much as Gay’s interventions have. 

These rulings have helped create a more just world for Black people, partially dismantling the racist ideals that have limited them. Yet these incremental steps were enacted amid great trepidation at the potential fallout of these decisions and uncertainty about their outcome. The muddling sheen of abstraction Gay injects into these images recalls that very unknowability. Yet this burnished luster also fogs the present. As cities and states across the country — but particularly the South — reconsider and reconfigure the monuments that occupy their public spaces, these artworks present the transformative potential of historical reimagining.

Shanequa Gay: Gateway to the South continues at Jackson Fine Art (3122 East Shadowlawn Avenue Northeast, Atlanta) until June 29. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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