Art & Culture / Art

Stan Squirewell is the Harlem artist creating regal portraits of black history

Collage art that questions our versions of history and identity.

For most artists, exploring identity and heritage is an important of their creative journey.  But what happens if you find out that your origins are different than you had originally thought?

That was the dilemma of Harlem based artist, Stan Squirewell, whose own ancestral search revealed an unexpected story.

“For most of my life I believed my family were African Americans who had arrived to the US on slave ships, and it wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered my true heritage, that they were indigenous Americans.”

The discovery of his heritage inspired Stan to look at black history through a different lens.  His latest exhibition with FACTION in London presents a provocative series of collage art works reflecting on identity and origin.

Stan’s portraits draw on 16th, 17thand 18thcentury aesthetics and fuse them with contemporary pop culture and fashion references. His visuals portray African American figures as regal and empowered, deeply connected to history and a central part of America’s narrative.  The effect is powerful, encouraging the viewer to think about the many ways in which history is curated and manipulated – and the voices that are too often rendered silent.

We caught up with the artist to talk about the very personal journey behind his works.

Hi Stan, as an artist, you draw so much on cultural history and identity, how has it impacted your art to discover that your story was different to what you had thought growing up?  

It was an awakening. It was crazy, it was like you go through your whole life thinking you’re one thing then you realise there’s a whole new story that you’ve never heard. I felt angry and upset and but then strangely joyous.

The works represent a broadening of narrative, they ask that people don’t accept that there is just one history, but that there are many histories, of which we know nothing about.

Has your experience affected how you see America as a country?  And your relationship to African American culture?

Absolutely, every aspect of my life has been affected physically and emotionally. My roots are here now, discovering my true background gave me a homeland, an identity and a place of origin.

What was the process of creating these collage works?

It starts with research, physical photography of collections, taking photos of statues and artworks in museums. After that, I add things I find interesting like fashion items, jewellery, notable contemporary elements. Then I sit down with all the images and cut them up and layer them on top of each other. Then I cut each piece out and burn the sides, all of the edges are scorched. When you look at them you can see the layers. They are then added to wooden frames which include motifs and markings from ancient indigenous American and African cultures, which are then also burned.

Can you see yourself creating works that exist outside of identity and culture – is it possible to transcend these in this era?  Would you want to?

Not for me. I do dabble in abstraction when I need some escape from reality, but ultimately I need to be true to what’s most important me, and that is the fact that I’ve been living a half-truth for 27 years.

In a time of great division, what’s the way forward for America?  How can art help heal these divides?

Definitely, art has always been a force of change. I would argue that everything is art, even the media is a form of art. If you change what’s in the media, you change society. Everyone watches TV or listens to the radio or goes online, if we change the messages we are sending out we can transform America.

We are seeing the media embrace, slowly, a more diverse representation of people.  Do you think the art world has a lot of work to do in this area?

I think right now we are living in a great time for inclusivity. African American artists in particular are thriving. I was reading an article the other day about museums are now consciously acquiring African Americans art because they’ve suddenly realised they don’t have any and that’s no longer acceptable. People of colour as far as museums are concerned are now hot stuff. It’s starting to happen!

How does Harlem inspire you as an artist? Do you feel particularly connected to its history?

The history really amazes me. I come from two great historical places, Harlem and Washington. I grew up reading about the Harlem Renaissance, and now I walk down the same streets as those I read about, that alone is sacred. Harlem is an incredible place of creativity. From the art, to the music to the restaurants, the wealth of creative talent is immense.

Are there any artists or creative local to the area who we should know about?

Patrick Alston, an amazing Harlem based, Bronx born abstract artist. David Shrobe, who is similarly working on themes of black identity. Nate Lewis is doing some fantastic work. Dario Calmese is doing some amazing photography. Alteronce Gumby. Kennedy Yanko is such a powerful sculptor.

What’s most exciting about showing your work in the UK?

I’m in the fricking UK! This is the first time my work is leaving the country. There is actually a very strong connection between Harlem and the UK. The stars of the Harlem renaissance all went to Europe, and I am following their legacy and that itself is absolutely amazing to me.

Thank you Stan!

Stan Squirewell’s exhibition with FACTION Art Projects runs until 13 April 2019 at Gallery 8 London 8 Duke Street St James’s London SW1Y 6BN

9 April 2019