Artist Shanequa Gay’s Paintings Shed Light on Homicides in Chicago

Frederick H. Lowe


From New America Media and NorthStar News:


Every Monday morning, Chicago's newspapers, television and radio stations never fail to bring readers, viewers and listeners the latest news about murders and shootings in Chicago's two other worlds--the South and West Sides.


One reporter jokingly told his editor that murder was a natural cause of death for black men on the South Side.


The repetitive news that one group of black men either has been murdered or wounded by another group of black men or shot to death by the Chicago police, deadens the minds and emotions of readers, viewers and listeners about the tragic daily occurrences. The grisly events, however, generate excitement in newsrooms because the publications, television and radio stations have a lead story for Monday, the beginning of a new week.


"It has gotten to the point that the murders and shootings don't mean anything, or people ask what I can do?" says Shanequa Gay, an Atlanta-based artist.


Unlike some who have thrown up their hands in understandable despair, the shootings and the plight of black men in Chicago and elsewhere have sparked Gay's imagination and creativity.


She used her skill as a painter to provoke members of the black community to take a new look at what is happening to their sons, not to look away. Gay's paintings also bid the black community to look at black men as human beings and fathers.


Gay's work has the same purpose of the paintings appearing in an art gallery in Mogadishu, Somalia, an African country that experienced 20 years of war that devastated the nation and its population. Artists and non-artists have been encouraged to visit the gallery, bring their paintings and even their paint to demonstrate how the war affected them.


Gay has named her project "Fair Game," a name hunters call their prey. In this instance, "Fair Game" are black men who are hunted in order to be annihilated by some of their own, by the police and by others. She says black men are not safe.


Gay is not the first creative black person to refer to black men as wild game or fair game. Author Ishmael Reed, who has spent time Alaska, jokingly said that whites would sometimes see him as “wild game.”


She illustrates this idea in three paintings that are part of a 24-painting exhibition. The Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., will host the exhibit until August 30.


In "Fair Game I," a hunter with a rifle and his dog hunt black men, some of whom have grown antlers, as they run for safety.


In "Fair Game II," another black man who has grown antlers fires a gun at three other men who also have grown antlers. An actual deer lies dead in the background. Seven deer look away.


In the final painting of this series, "box-chevy-gods," black men have grown deer antlers. They dance on top of an abandoned car. In the background, two actual deer stare into the far distance. Ominously, the images are caught in the crosshairs of a gun.


In Gay's paintings, black men morph from innocent fawns to bucks. Gay said she did this to show that black men were considered three-fifths of a man as slaves. They were considered animals to be hunted down if they escaped their bondage.


Gay started the "Fair Game" project because she became upset with the carnage in Chicago, the shooting death of an unarmed Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the 2011 execution of Troy Davis in Georgia. These are high-profile instances in which black men have been shot to death.


Another high-profile, true-life story involving the deadly shooting of a black man has been turned into a feature film.


"Fruitvale," which is based on the shooting death of Oscar Grant III by Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Day 2009, will open July 12 in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Mehserle shot Grant in the back of the head as he lay face down on a BART’s Fruitvale station platform.


Gay also wanted to address the issue of fatherlessness in the black home, which many in the African-American community accept as normal.


In the painting, "Father of Perpetual Help," which is based on "Mother of Perpetual Help," a father tenderly cradles his baby in his arms.


Other paintings about the plight of black men include "Boxed In II,” in which a black man with his knees to his chest and his head is bent over touching his knees attempts to survive in a box that is too small. The painting illustrates the limits that society often consigns to black men. “It is claustrophobic,” she says.


Another painting, which sums up the exhibit, is the front facial view of the young black man wearing a cap. Written over man's face in large letters is the sentence, "iamhuman."


Black men praise and thank Gay for her work. “It is a disservice to sit by and do nothing,” she said.


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