Shanequa Gay proud, thrilled by invitation to exhibit at prestigious Venice Biennale

Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay in her College Park studio.
Courtesy of Addison Wood

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Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay in her College Park studio. Courtesy of Addison Wood

Three Atlanta-based artists, Shanequa Gay, Megan Mosholder and Deanna Sirlin, were invited to exhibit this year at the prestigious 59th Venice Biennale, the largest art fair in the world, April 23 through Nov. 27. ArtsATL talked with each of them about their participation and how it’s impacting their life and art. Look for the other two interviews in the coming weeks.

Shanequa Gay laughs when recalling her first response to the news that she’d been invited to exhibit her work at the Biennale. “I was spastic, overwhelmed and could not believe I got the opportunity,” says the multimedia artist. But given the questions that have informed her installations, paintings, live performances, photography, video and monumental sculptural figures over a 15-year career — questions that address her sense of responsibility as a steward of all living things — the Atlanta native’s participation in the European Cultural Centre’s Personal Structures show seems inevitable.

A firm believer that art is the only vehicle to mend humanity’s self-inflicted wounds, Gay considers herself “a hostess of the work” that draws upon ritual, personal memory, storytelling, fantasy and the deep well of Southern Black traditions. Currently a visiting professor at Spelman College, she is an Emory University Arts and Social Justice Fellow whose recent exhibitions include the Atlanta Biennial at Atlanta Contemporary (2021), “Holding Space for Nobility: A Memorial for Breonna Taylor” at the Ackland Museum in Chapel Hill (2020) and “Lit Without Sherman” at Hammonds House Museum (2019).

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Artist Shanequa Gay’s installation “Lit Without Sherman: A Love Letter to the West End” celebrates that Atlanta neighborhood through a series of wallpapers and site specific works including the mural “Welcoming Committee” devoted to area residents. Photo credit: Brian Christian

Artist Shanequa Gay’s installation “Lit Without Sherman: A Love Letter to the West End” celebrates that Atlanta neighborhood through a series of wallpapers and site specific works including the mural “Welcoming Committee” devoted to area residents. Photo credit: Brian Christian

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Artist Shanequa Gay’s installation “Lit Without Sherman: A Love Letter to the West End” celebrates that Atlanta neighborhood through a series of wallpapers and site specific works including the mural “Welcoming Committee” devoted to area residents. Photo credit: Brian Christian

Gay gave ArtsATL a preview of her installations that will be on exhibit in Venice; talked about her pride in representing Atlanta internationally; and reflected on her life’s purpose as an artist.

Q: Congratulations on your selection for the Venice Biennale! How did the opportunity come about?

A: The team that makes my dream a reality introduced my work to the European Cultural Centre. They are art dealer and broker Courtney Bombeck, curator and art historian Shannon Morris and Allison Barker, who is a gallerist, journalist, PR and marketing executive. That introduction and exchange led to my being invited to show at the Biennale.

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"Atlannah," (2021) Courtesy of Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

"Atlannah," (2021)
Courtesy of Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

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"Atlannah," (2021) Courtesy of Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

Q: Describe the pieces you will take to Venice, and the significance of each selection.

A: My installation “Daughters of Metropolitan” (2022) is diptych painting that reimagines spaces where Black girls can play . . . be it dress up or making pretend. There is a vitality and exuberance when children play [where] you cannot reach them because they are elsewhere. Metropolitan is a reference to the street where I took my first steps and played with friends as a little girl.

The hybridized figures on top of my subjects’ heads and shoulders are symbols of strength, grace, wisdom, power and the ability to swim in the deep waters of blighted, forgotten and disappearing communities.

The full-wall installation, spanning 15 feet by 9 feet, will include a vinyl wall covering and two dye bonds of gradient silhouettes printed on an aluminum sheet bookending the painting. They are titled “hey, slim” and “one magic, the other divine.”

The Venetian premiere of this collection at Palazzo Bembo complements my extensive study of global textiles and European imagery of the African moro.

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Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay in her College Park studio. Courtesy of Addison Wood

Credit: Addison Wood

Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay in her College Park studio.
Courtesy of Addison Wood

Credit: Addison Wood

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Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay in her College Park studio. Courtesy of Addison Wood

Credit: Addison Wood

Credit: Addison Wood

Q: Practically speaking, you will be serving as an ambassador when you are in Venice. Whom do you see yourself representing?

A: I will represent the state of Georgia, Southern Black women and, more specifically, Southern Black women artists. They are the humans I respect the most, so the opportunity to represent them on a global scale is really important to me.

Q: Artists are required to pay a fee to exhibit at the Biennale. How will you fund your travel and exhibition expenses?

A: Mum’s the word on the exact cost, but my gallerist, Courtney, has been the driver of sponsorships. Private collectors including Cherie Fuzzell, Rick Miller and Adrian Woolcock have been especially supportive. They, along with public companies including COOP-ART ATL, The Curator’s Studio and North Highland underwrote all my expenses related to materials, travel and mounting the work [which can exceed six figures].

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"Epistemic" (2019) by Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

"Epistemic" (2019) by Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

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"Epistemic" (2019) by Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

Credit: Shanequa Gay

Q: Speaking strictly as a tourist, what’s the first thing you want to do, see, eat, drink or hear upon arrival in Italy?

A: I cannot wait to experience Italy beyond scrolling on my phone and reading the mounds of Italian history I received from textbooks at SCAD. I look forward to hearing what Italy sounds like; eating the best pasta and drinking very lush wine. I also love fashion and hope to bring back a couple of pairs of authentic Italian shoes!

Q: What has been the most thrilling aspect as you anticipate this opportunity?

A: Oh, my goodness . . . that’s going to bring me to tears. [Her voice quavers]

I have had a lot of amazing opportunities that made me feel like I won the lottery.

I got to represent the state of Georgia in 2013 when I was invited to the First Lady’s luncheon for Michelle Obama as an illustrator. Six years later, the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee invited me to contribute murals to their city-wide civil rights and social justice initiative, “Off the Wall.” I’m now at the point of wondering what could possibly top this opportunity in Venice, where the most thrilling aspect has been knowing my work is considered worthy of being seen on such a grand scale.

Q: What is your purpose as an artist?

A: I believe my purpose is to be a devout griot.

I am interested in asking several questions: How can I combat the absolute spiritual destruction of Black women in this nation? What does it mean for a nation of people to toil without thanks? How do I engage in a practice that has a desire to see that no harm comes to people, animals, land or ocean? What does it mean for me to take up spiritual activism in the work of healing?

I also desire to share Black imaginative stories from the South because I feel like my story is just as important as anyone else’s who is centered in the fine-art world.


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Credit: ArtsATL

ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

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ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

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