In “Songs Tha Darkies Sang”—a collage series inspired by words from James Baldwin’s now famous 1968 London speech— Stan Squirewell creates works that challenge assumptions about Black identity, sexuality, indigenous culture and more.
A Harlem-based artist, Squirewell likes to point out that Lili’uokalani, the last queen of the Hawaiian Kingdom (1838-1917) would be called “indigenous,” though pictures clearly reveal she is Black. Likewise, his grandmother’s grandmother was Irish and he also had Native American antecedents. “There is no authenticity,” he says, “certainly in terms of identity and racial make-up. I never thought my skin complexion had anything to do with how good or bad I was.”
Then drop this nugget into the mix, something he discovered while researching his heritage: “My family had means and land. One ancestor actually owned a person. My family would have killed you for calling them Black. I had to do a lot of unpacking about that.” History, whether national or personal, is rarely cut and dry.
That partially explains Squirewell’s process. Drawing on tens of thousands of images he’s collected over the years, he prints out what attracts him, cuts elements from them, burns their edges and submerges them in a “baptismal” bath. That way, each element is purged of its old associations and given new life in Squirewell’s densely packed compositions, which then pose new questions. He’s not intentional about those questions he insists: “It’s like hip hop. I’m sampling, but I’m doing it with images instead of sound.” One piece, of a Black man with oversized red lips, a pink boa and a Marie Antoinette wig, teems with ambiguities: Is he a transvestite? Why is his face black, but his hand white? Is it blackface? Is that a collar around his neck? What’s with the quasi- ecclesiastical vestments and saintly pose; is it a reference to the Christian church being a place where gay Black men could feel safe?
Squirewell is also fascinated by binaries—not just black-white, female-male, etc., but binary computer language, which he learned to write in high school, and which he sees in everything: mandalas, the poetry of Langston Hughes, patterns of kente cloth. He carves binary code, mixed with indigenous glyphs, into his frames, further layering on illusory meanings. Like our identities, he says, “Nobody knows who or what they are, no matter how much research you do.”
For more from Stan Squirewell be sure to check out his website here.
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