Shanequa Gay’s new exhibit inspired by her ancestors and southern Black traditions

“Carry theWait” is one of the paintings on display in Shanequa Gay’s new exhibit.

Shanequa Gay

Inspired by her ancestors and Southern Black traditions, Atlanta artist Shanequa Gay has created 15 new pieces of artwork called “If I Were Not Here, I Would Have to Be Invented.” Her colorful works combining photography, paint, and collage are on display now at Maison Hideoki on Peachtree Road through Dec. 9. She’s also showing a collection of photo collage works at Jackson Fine Art Gallery through Dec. 23. The artist joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to share some of her sources of inspiration for these vivid multi-disciplinary works.

“‘If I were not here, I would have to be invented’, actually came from just thinking about histories, the make-up of a person, and fantasy and lore. My work is steeped in those things,” said Gay. “We are addicted to storytelling. We are the only creature, if I’m not mistaken, that lives off the narrative. And so, what does it mean to create the things that are not here, that are not present?”

Gay described collage as a new, but not unfamiliar, medium for her work, which is “steeped in play.” The images in the “If I Were Not Here” series began to evolve when Gay was tapped for a residency at Stove Works in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was limited to bringing a sparse set of media and tools. “I took paper, I took graphite, watercolor, and some collage papers, and I began to play,” said Gay.

The images comprise a series of deconstructed, stylized photo portraits of young women and girls whom Gay photographed, later adding layers of paper and paint to the photos. “The girls are actually images I took back in 2018 at Perkerson Park…. I was actually doing research for another project, and came upon these children just everywhere,” said Gay. “I began to take pictures of these girls, and came upon these files when I was in Chattanooga, and I was just like, ‘Oh, this is joy. This is fun.’”

A lover of fantasy, Gay cites films and stories from her childhood like “The Never-Ending Story” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as influences in the way she sees the world, even her hometown of Atlanta. “What does it mean to create a fantasy land of a place that you’re actually familiar with?” Gay mused. “I’m really interested in the lore that a lot of people have about Atlanta, as though Atlanta is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. ‘If I could only get to Atlanta, all things in my life would change.’” She fondly refers to her city as “Atlantaland,” and fills her artwork with visual signals that, to her, summon the sensory identifiers of her city, like hot sauce and watermelons.

Her use of the photo portraiture also signals the city’s darker history; Gay spoke to a connection to the Atlanta child murders of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. “If you look at the young ladies’ eyes, all of them have these humongous eye features that are trapped in maybe, these boxes, unorthodox shapes. Those eyes are actually images of either the victims themselves, or their family members,” she said.

“What does it mean to carry these histories with us?” Gay asked. “Whether they are aware or unawares, I was just thinking about the freedom that the children had playing at Perkerson Park, and I was just thinking about that trap, or that lack therein, of freedom for those of us who grew up late ‘70s, early ‘80s, during that time of the Atlanta child murders…. We all carry our generational past with us.”

Co-Op Art Atlanta presents Shanequa Gay’s “If I Were Not Here, I Would Have to Be Invented” at Maison Hideoki through Dec. 9. More information on this exhibition is available at