Artist Stan Squirewell creates richly layered identities and fleshed-out characters in his incredible mixed media collages. After finding an image of his great-great-great grandfather during the Civil War, he was inspired to focus his art on imagery of Black people and people of color as a way to shed light on the diverse narratives of African-American ancestry. His newest exhibition We Speak in Rivers, uplifts the original figures from 1900s documentary photography through a captivating mixed-media approach.
Fifteen of Squirewell's large-scale works are now on display at New York City's Claire Oliver Gallery. He likens his creative process to that of a DJ, layering different materials to breathe life into the work. By weaving together fabric, collage, and other adornments, he takes these anonymous figures out of the past and allows the public to view them with fresh eyes. And in doing so, he asks us to reconsider what we know about the past.
“It's crucial for people to question and explore their own unique stories because, especially within African American ancestry, our narratives are incredibly diverse,” Squirewell tells My Modern Met. “Not all of us share the same journeys—some didn't arrive on boats, and not all of our forebears were enslaved. For me, exploring my heritage challenged prevailing notions about Black family narratives. I aim for viewers to not only appreciate the aesthetic beauty captured in the photographs but also to cultivate a deeper understanding and acknowledgment of the past.”
The concept of family and community is a running theme through Squirewell's work. His selection of historical imagery is a personal choice guided by his own upbringing and balanced with the desire to work with material that is visually stimulating. We Speak In Rivers is anchored with family, as we see men, women, and children outfitted to impress for formal portraits. Squirewell's colorful additions to the scenes honors the care and pride that these historical figures likely took in having their images immortalized by the camera.
“I see my work as reaching back through history, creating a visual conversation with the oft-forgotten subjects of so many old photographs,” states Squirewell. “So much of what we know about history is told through a one-dimensional lens—I aim to give my characters depth, spirituality, and a new kind of legacy—one that was often denied them in their own time.”
We Speak In Rivers is on view at Claire Oliver Gallery in New York City until January 13, 2024.