How do you think it feels to live in the crosshairs of a target scope? Shanequa Gay’s return exhibition at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, “The Fair Game Project,” shows many aspects of this oppressive condition. More than 20 visual works evoke a range of feelings from empathy to irony to rage. Gay combines elegant painting with poetic acumen to bring viewers a realization of the terror of being the target.
Gay remarks: “’Fair Game’ is inspired by my belief that African American men are being hunted like game and are an endangered species.” She goes on to explain that these “hunters” even include “the black male through self-inflicted genocide.” Gay will be present for an artist talk on Tuesday, July 16 at 6 p.m. at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, where “The Fair Game Project” runs through August 30.
Gay’s paintings are on wood and carry 2012 dates. A group of six paintings, some of which show the “Fair Game” titles, use the natural board as a background, and this choice brings a sense of irony to the works since the “natural” wood backgrounds the unnatural and surreal foreground presentations. These subjects are shown in just two colors, gray and black, both functioning in silhouettes. The gray becomes a middle ground and the black presents the foreground. Gay achieves an elegant, three-dimensional effect with this use of the medium. She also invokes a dramatic sense of implied motion for her figures, many of which are caught in dynamic flight.
Some of these figures represent a verbal and visually surreal idiom. While the word “buck” can refer to white males, it has a long history of reference to black males, probably going back to slavery. Many of Gay’s black male figures have racks of horns, just as “trophy bucks” have. Some of her figures include actual deer animals as well. Other figures include hunters with rifles, a uniformed figure with a pistol, and a “buck” figure with a pistol.
Gay’s metaphor “hunted like game” has a very deep significance. While slavery in the ancient world was a common state, it was generally a kind of political fortune. A famous passage in the “Satiricon” by Petronius portrays a feast given by a character who owns a great Roman estate. The character had been a slave to the estate’s former owner, but he inherited the property upon the death of his master. With the widespread ascent of Christianity, the moral problem of slavery was assuaged through dehumanization, with slaves considered to be no more than savages or beasts. In his famous novel “The Sound and the Fury,” William Faulkner demonstrated that those who keep men like animals become animals themselves.
The abolition of slavery came as a result of the recognition of the humanity of the people held as slaves. This broadening humanized inclusion allowed a more equitable moral ground. Racism remains the horrible legacy of slavery. Beliefs that are little more than rationalized hatred continue to damage society.
Perception remains the key to artistic creation. The perspective of privilege blindly ignores the collateral damage of its privileged position. Gay’s art brings the viewer to the perception of the prey, as it were. Some of Gay’s paintings are poems, voicing the rage that results from continued victimization. Her “Boxed In” diptych shows black men who are pulled into themselves, surrounded by word collages.
She also has portraits, presented on natural board to emphasize the natural quality of humanity. Gay’s collage painting “Father of Perpetual Help” has a satirical bite. She presents the man holding a child in the iconic mode usually accorded to Madonnas. Is this divine state somehow unthinkable? This image of divine man and child erupts into a cultural void. Can you see this? You can, because Gay does.
Of other portraits, one called “Patriot” shows a standing black “buck” with target zones indicated. Another, “Troy (Davis)” has his first name and portrait painted onto a collage of news stories about his case. One of the poem paintings depicts Trayvon Martin. The Zimmerman trial is ongoing.
Gay’s work has gained wide recognition since last exhibit at the Bessie Smith. She has shown at the Hunter Museum, and has been chosen for a White House commission, among a number of other inclusions and honors. Gay’s work, relevantly engaged and stunningly evocative, brings balance to skewed social views.
Shanequa Gay: “The Fair Game Project”
Through August 30, Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. MLK Blvd., (423) 266-8658, www.bessiesmithcc.org