When I asked SHAN Wallace what her favorite song of all time was, she hesitated, hummed the melody, and named “The Reason Why” by Rashan Roland Kirk. From his album Volunteered Slavery, Kirk’s song is joyous and bountiful, and a chorus of Black voices and instruments create a cacophony of Black expression. Collages are like jazz, I’ve written before, in their consumption of apparently disparate parts into a cohesive whole and in their histories of being exceptionally Black modes of expression.
Wallace relies on herself for source material for her collages. Utilizing her own photographs taken around Baltimore for the works in Derivatives, Memory, and The Mundane, recently on view at Washington, DC’s Mehari Sequar Gallery (and still viewable online), she creates a closed network of artistic expression. The collages are self-referential, originating from her photographs, representing herself as a Black woman, a Baltimorean, and an ever evolving and growing artist. Wallace is a living, breathing, embodied collaged expression of the histories, influences, presents, futures, the magnificent and the mundane of her world, telling the story of herself and her Baltimore.
Originally from East Baltimore, Wallace began taking photographs when she was only eight years old, and her work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Cut, and Vanity Fair, among others, including BmoreArt. The evolution of that work informs her current collage practice. She describes embarking on this practice in 2018 as “something I figured I would attempt and try. It was new and immature, I wasn’t really thinking about messages and not conceptualizing things.” From that entry point, though, she kept working, layering, building, and developing her craft.
Wallace finds the process of collaging similar to photography. “When I first started making images and pursuing art, [I asked myself] what type of photographer do I want to be?” She asked herself a similar question when she began making collages: “Do I want to be someone who just has a few layers, or do I want to push the process or make it challenging by adding layers?” Many of Wallace’s collages are made of more than a hundred layers of images. Since the images come from her own photography, memory and meaning are embedded within this practice, and further infuse her works with her own positionality, her own place, her own pride in her city of Baltimore. “I enjoy the layering and the thinking, and the re-making and rethinking,” she says. “I enjoy connecting these different worlds and different people to create something.”
The fact that Wallace’s collages use her own photographs of specific and quotidian scenes resonated with Chioma Agbaraji, manager and curator of Mehari Sequar Gallery, who recently curated the exhibition Derivatives, Memory, and The Mundane. “One of the most important elements of SHAN’s collage work to me is that she creates her collage using her own photo archives. Meaning, there are no digital mashups or pristinely captured sitters, it’s just everyday documentation,” Agbaraji says. “With that, SHAN is able to expound on the livelihoods of the sitters and environments in her collage. I like to think of the collage as an in-depth, fictional look at the lives of her sitters. The collages tell us who they might be after-hours, or what they’re thinking or experiencing as they grow older.”
Wallace has aimed to develop her collages to read more like paintings. The works in Derivatives, Memory, and The Mundane are clearly influenced by paintings—their multifaceted and multidimensional layered source material, subjects, and stories, combined with more surprising elements like glitter, create an environment for reflection and jubilation.