Artist at the Roll Up archives the lives of black people
Photographer SHAN Wallace wears her philosophy on her sleeve — or, the day of her artist’s lecture at the Beatties Ford Public Library, her head.
Her ball cap, emblazoned with a black panther and a pin that simply states “Very Black,” telegraphs her worldview as surely as the slide show she presents.
Photographs of Wallace’s work from Baltimore protests, with residents of Flint, Mich., and of everyday people waiting at a Baltimore bus stop are interspersed with vintage advertising and turn of the century portraits.
The self-described visual artist and freedom fighter says her goal is to create a visual archive of the social, cultural, and political narratives of black life and communities from an invested and connective worldview.
“My goal is to show us who we are, how we look, how beautiful we are, down to our sagging pants and 27-inch weaves. These things are rooted in the culture of how we survive and express ourselves,” she said. “I want to show us, us.”
The 28-year-old Wallace, an East Baltimore native, currently calls The Roll Up CLT home.
As The Roll Up’s current artist in residence, she will remain in Charlotte through November, increasing her body of work while building community on Charlotte’s west side. Wallace is teaching Photography 101 to middle school students at Lorien Academy of the Arts.
She also is holding a series of free portrait sessions the last Monday of each month at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s Beatties Ford Road Regional Library through October. It’s on a first-come, first-served basis, and Wallace will be at the library from 6-7:30 p.m. on those days.
“Portraiture was here before we had selfies. “ Wallace said. “The details of posture, how people posed, how many kids were in the photograph, what you wore, were all so important to what we communicated to each other. It was how we controlled our visibility throughout past decades. I’m really excited about the portraits that I’ll be doing here because I get to reassemble that history aesthetically.”
Those who sign up for portraits can dress up or down, invite others, and bring family artifacts to display in the photographs. Wallace spends time talking with them, trying different poses, and adjusting to the light until, together, they hit upon an image that captures the energy of the moment.
Participants also receive a copy of the photos to add to their own family archives. That component of shared collaboration is of vital importance to Wallace’s process.
“When I give people photographs of themselves, they’re always first taken aback that I’m doing it at all and it doesn’t cost any money. They say things like, ‘Why would you want to take photos of me?’ So I’m able to understand how we feel about ourselves collectively and how we feel about ourselves individually,” Wallace said. “But also, you’d be surprised how many people have never had their picture taken. How many people don’t even get acknowledged, who’ve never been acknowledged. And I’ve had people cry on my shoulder.”
The last straw
Wallace, who graduated high school in 2009, studied broadcast journalism at Bowie State University. She’d not been overtly political until the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. The high-profile cases of unarmed black people being killed and unrest in cities continued to grow. Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of Baltimore police in 2015 was the last straw.
Disillusioned by the biased and tone-deaf news coverage of protests, Wallace began covering the city for The Baltimore Afro-American, the longest-running African-American family-owned newspaper in the United States, and other outlets.
She was named Best Photographer (2016) and Best Solo Show (2017) by the Baltimore City Paper. And Wallace began looking at travel, as the political, economic and social challenges blacks faced appeared interconnected and worldwide.
In 2017, she went to Cuba twice, then South Africa, and has continued globe hopping, camera in tow. Each time she travels, she brings stacks of photographs to exchange with her collaborators in addition to leaving them with copies of the pictures she takes. Wallace said it helps foster connection.
“I thought, well, I’ve got these photographs. Let me just take them to give people as offerings. And it really helps with the language barrier,” she said with a laugh. “But I am able to give them a perspective of where I come from, and also that of black people in America because the (international) perception of how we live and what we do, and our complaints and our injustices, is just really off.”
Seeing for real
These kinds of conversations are the ways Wallace builds trust and connection, especially when shooting in unfamiliar or high-crime areas. She talks to the women at the bus stop, the boys at the corner store. She may hang out all day and not take a single shot.
“For me, it’s really about the process and the intention. I mean, I don’t use zoom lenses. I’m always up on people. I’m in your face like this, I’m not across the street. I trying to see you for real,” Wallace said. “I’m always trying to show just how much we’re connected and if we acknowledge it, build on it and nurture it, we’re more powerful.
“We can align with one another. Baltimore is connected to Charlotte and Charlotte is connected Detroit. It’s like Audrey Lorde says to James Baldwin in (the book) ‘Revolutionary Hope,’ and this is not verbatim: ‘When we look at our differences and own them and are not divided by them, that’s when we will be able to progress.’ That’s something I really believe in.”
Since then, Wallace’s photography has taken her to Milwaukee, Detroit and she completed a fellowship at the prestigious Getty Institute in Los Angeles this year. She used her access to the Getty’s archives to write curriculum for Lorien Academy.
Wallace is unapologetic about it: “They have so many resources. If I’m going to be a part of these institutions, my community is going to have access to them, too.”
Women in Transition
Wallace’s work-in-progress, Women in Transition, focuses on Charlotte women struggling to find affordable housing. She recently had a portraiture program, Sisters with Stories, for BlkMkt in Camp Northend, and cutXcopy, a mixed media photography and collage series at New Gallery.
Wallace has a joint program coming up at Hodges Taylor and Elder Gallery on Aug. 21, and an exhibit at Central Piedmont Community College in Aug. 12, as well as about 10 art-related appearances and events each month.
Wallace also is a contributor to W|ALL: DEFEND, DIVIDE, AND THE DIVINE exhibit, which will run at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles Sept. 21-Jan. 5.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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