Washington, D.C. artist Stan Squirewell’s work is infused with the spirit of his great aunt who, like a great matriarch, summoned her family to her bedside as she was about to pass on. He recalled, “My great aunt was basically on her deathbed in the stages of her transition. That’s when she called everyone to have a meeting to tell us about our history.”
She told the assembled family members that their ancestors were originally from Barbados, before its “discovery” and colonization by Europeans. “She told us my great-grandfather [and] my great-great-grandfather came to this country from Barbados and that they were indigenous to Barbados,” Squirewell continued. “And I had never heard it and did not know that at all. I thought, according to what I was given at school, that we were brought here on slave ships. I didn’t know that there was a Black presence in this hemisphere that
Since that long night so many years ago, Squirewell has been fascinated with his family’s history in particular and Black history in general. He uses his art in part as a tool to investigate the ways in which history is crafted and presented to people of color.
Squirewell uses mixed media, including wood, plastic, acrylic and other materials to “challenge people to look deeper into their history, especially people of color.”
“Because what I found is that the history that I was given is not the history—that’s not the only history,” he said.
Squirewell’s work, along with that of Renee Cox and a number of other artists of color, is being presented in the current Harlem Perspectives exhibit at Faction Art Gallery, which runs through May 13. All of the artists in that exhibition are Harlem residents.
Squirewell is a fan of First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraitist Amy Sherald and in fact graduated from the same art program at the Hoffberger School of Painting as she did. They both studied with the late Grace Hartigan, who Squirewell revealed once tried to play matchmaker between Sherald and him. He has high praise for the Obamas in their choices of portraitists. “I have to acknowledge Barack and Michelle for having the guts to choose contemporary African-American artists to do portraits that they knew was going to challenge everyone,” he said.
Also featured in Harlem Perspectives is the oft-controversial Renee Cox. Born in Jamaica, West Indies but raised in the United States, she grew up mainly in Scarsdale, a suburb of New York City. After considering becoming a filmmaker, she decided on photography instead and graduated from the School of Visual Arts and the Whitney Independent Study Program. Cox began as a fashion photographer and eventually transitioned into fine art.
Using photography, she inserts images of Black people in spaces that are traditionally rendered as “white” and uses photographic imagery to upend stereotypes, fighting systematic erasure from spaces of power and centering Black women in ways that often make others uncomfortable. Former New York City Mayor Giuliani famously inveighed against her five-paneled painting “Yo Mama’s Last Supper” when it was featured in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. It showed a nude, vibrant Cox with arms outstretched on either side, in the center panel as a messianic figure. She is surrounded on either side by 12 relatively young, virile men we can assume symbolized disciples. Giuliani called for a commission to set decency standards to prevent such images from being shown in public museums.
Cox said about her art, “In short, it’s about the empowerment of women, particularly women of color as I am one. Producing images that I think are positive and that I think of a little Black girl being be able to say to herself ,‘Hey maybe I can do that, too.’”
The longtime Harlem resident was thrilled to see Faction open in the area not too long ago. She said, “I live literally down the block. When they opened it was like, ‘Wait a minute. What’s this? This looks like a legit kind of gallery.’” After checking it out, she decided she liked what she saw and went about the business of getting her work shown there.
“It’s good, you know they’re doing something in what I call ‘Black Harlem’,” she said.
Cox emphasizes that her work is for all kinds of people to see. “I certainly don’t discriminate,” she said with a laugh. “It’s great when Black people see it because—you know—maybe they can relate to it—you know—more. They have more of a sensibility of what that discourse is. But for me, it’s like it’s open because it’s also, especially with the kind of work that I do, I think, it’s good for white people because they get a little lesson in there. I’m not interested in turning us into victims. I’m interested in us winning at least in the photographs that I do. It’s like rewriting our own history, like they rewrite their history.”