Re-making, Re-thinking: The Interplay Between SHAN Wallace’s Photography and Collage

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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. 


SHAN Wallace, Mouth Full of (from the Lexington Market series), 2018, photograph on fine art rag paper


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.


SHAN Wallace, Rent Party, 2021, collage on Stonehenge paper
SHAN Wallace, Old Town Mall, 2020, photograph on Baryta fine art paper

In my own research and archiving of Black collage artwork, I have become familiar with collagists’ practice of making them analog (by hand using paper, other materials, and adhesive) and then scanning them to render them digital and accessible online. Digital collages are made entirely on the computer through scanned and generated source material. Wallace combines analog and digital methods, beginning by making the collages digitally on a computer and then converting them into analog tangible and tactile works. The digital element of collage allows her to conceptualize the final artworks. “When I make it analog, it allows me to bring it to life and make changes. The digital part is a blueprint,” Wallace says. 

Collages allow Wallace to give archives a different functionality. In August 2020, Wallace exhibited a set of collaged artwork in Savannah Wood’s show Close Read at BmoreArt’s Connect+Collect Gallery. For Close Read, Wallace used images from the AFRO archives and then made digital animations which were projected onto C+C’s street-facing windows. The process was laborious for Wallace, but also rewarding and necessary. Much of her work is the result of intuitive creation. “With the collaged photography and animations each piece leads me to the next,” she says. “I have a plan about how to finish a thing but I’m not sure how it would look and what it entails.”

The process of completing her collages is an extended and durational act that is opposite to the immediate nature of making a photograph. “Collages take a long time because the layers can be really small, six sets of eyes, then a photo, then a leg, and then a hand, building every part piece by piece,” she says.  

For viewers of the fifteen works in Derivatives, Memory, and The Mundane at Mehari Sequar Gallery, this effort was time well spent. One of my favorite things about her show at Mehari Sequar was the exhibition design. The first thing you encountered upon entering the gallery was a wall of photographs that marked the beginning of Wallace’s career, where she first developed her eye, critical voice, and art-making process. On the opposite side was a series of her collaged works, showing the development of her artistic practice. 

That immediate visual progression was intentional, according to Agbaraji, the curator. “The design was all about the first word in the title: derivatives. I wanted to make clear within the exhibition that there are two avenues of SHAN’s practice that we’re exploring, both predicated on one another,” Agbaraji says. “Then, by creating an ‘entrance’ into the show, I wanted folks to realize that each photograph was in some way used to develop its corresponding collage on the other side of the gallery.”

The “derivatives” are sometimes tiny details; Agbaraji cites a cigarette that appears in “Old Town Mall” and reappears in the “Rent Party” collage. “It was important for me to highlight how these expressive moments of community or intimacy are also part of our everyday life,” says Agbaraji. “That’s why there was so much variety which I believe is a necessary intervention as a curator highlighting Black life in 2021. We must constantly reiterate that there is no singular story.”


SHAN Wallace, Body, 2020, photograph on Baryta fine art paper

Wallace uses her artistic practice as a whole to document Black life in all of its expressions: the magnificent, the mundane, the banal, the brilliant, the depths of despair, and the bliss of ascension. The works in Derivatives, Memory, and the Mundane echoed her ethos and animated the show’s title. The photographs fuel and speak to the collages. With each frame, snap, and layer, Wallace creates a loop and an ongoing reciprocal relationship between her various works ruled by her creative energy. 

When asked whether she has a preference between collage and photography, Wallace emphasizes that the two expressions are inseparable. “I do not have the collage without photography. There is no photography without community,” she says. “With collage work, I allow the community and subjectivity to be a part of the process, using contemporary figures to talk about the past and the present. The fabric of photography is the community; the same for the collage work too.”

There is joy and intimacy in this world-building process. “The people who I photograph, who went from strangers or family, get to be figures [in the collages] and I get to imagine them differently and put them in rent parties and brothels,” Wallace says. When making photographs out in the world, there is much to consider physically, including “safety, consent, [and] environment.” Collage is more insular and isolated in its creation, just the artist and her material. 


SHAN Wallace, The Avenue installed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Photo: Mitro Hood/courtesy of BMA
SHAN Wallace, Sisters Alike, 2019, photograph on fine art rag paper

Before her solo exhibition in Mehari Sequar Gallery, I viewed Wallace’s work at the Baltimore Museum of Art in her now-closed exhibition 410 inside the Contemporary wing and “The Avenue,” a series of five large, digitally printed collages installed outside on fencing near the BMA Spring House. 

The power of public art lies in its accessibility for everyone regardless of race, class, gender, or socioeconomic status. “The Avenue” generates the opportunity for the living subjects within its borders to come and see themselves embodied in the work a bit larger than life, encapsulated in a moment in time, archived by Wallace with intention and care. On view through Fall 2021, “The Avenue” is a series of five digital collages that display history, place, and research through references to Baltimore’s storied Pennsylvania Avenue. Throughout this series, Wallace alludes to culinary themes that are common to Black people regardless of geographic location, and emphasizes the related foodways between Baltimore and the South. Much of this work was based on the research of Jessica B. Harris’s book High on the Hog.

In “The Avenue,” the familiar green Ronald Taylor Funeral Home awning is present, a site I’ve walked by countless times on North Avenue. Figures in various levels of dress, one in the white of mourning, are in a graveyard directly in front of the awning, layered above a blue and red home. The homes are ruins and tombs of lives lived, absent of energy; the windows are without glass, and wooden boards punctuate the edifices. A central figure, a young girl wearing a pink baseball cap, wears the funereal white and holds a shovel, standing in front of a tombstone that reads “HALL.” She looks off into the distance. On her left, two women stand with their backs to the viewer; I believe they too are in mourning and that they are sisters, their dresses collaged from the same floral fabric. They hold hands and look downward at a tombstone in front of them. 

In another scene, the most prominent element is a red banner that reads “HEADQUARTERS FOR FRESH! HOG MAWS & CHITTERLINGS.” It’s hung on white columns on the side of a building, mirroring the white columns at the museum’s front entrance, and it also displays advertisements for Manning’s cooked oatmeal. This scene is busy and vibrant. A man walks by clutching a brown paper bag, balancing bananas on his head. An older woman rests her back against one of the columns; her pastel flip-flops and tank top indicate that this must be summer. A woman with a white headdress, muscular arms, and earrings bottle-feeds a baby, while a young person to her left carries pineapples. Fruit punctuates this market scene.  


SHAN Wallace, Smooth Talk, 2021, collage on Stonehenge paper

Much of the foundation and research for the work in the Mehari Sequar show began in Wallace’s research for “The Avenue.” Some of the figures and elements in “The Avenue” made their way to DC in the Derivatives, Memories, and The Mundane exhibition. The works both in front of the BMA and in Mehari Sequar Gallery explore Black leisure, Black recreation, and Black banality. The DC show relies heavily on themes that are central to Black culture such as food and communion. “Food has really determined how we sit at a table, how we party, how we come together,” says Wallace. “Rent parties turning into sex parties and adult parties.”

In the DC show, “Westminster” depicts a church or a religious setting at home. Two figures in devotion or worship are present, and both hold a book of holy scriptures. In the background, a cross, candle, and bouquet of red roses are next to an open book in front of a red cloth, an object familiar to the Black Christian tradition. This scene is one of the sacred, while the profane is more readily apparent in “Smooth Talk.” A couple dances or embraces, raising glasses in celebration. The couple holds hands, while in the background behind their floral doily-covered couch, their kids hide. The man wears white air forces, and the black slides the woman is wearing are also worn by people in “The Avenue.”

Perhaps they’re married, and he’s whispering sweet nothings into her ear, smooth-talking as they dance. My favorite element is a set of curtains cut from a pink material that appear to almost blow out of the frame, moved by the wind of a fan. This seems like an afterparty; styrofoam cups clutter the couch, the woman smokes a cigarette, and a rum bottle rests on an obsidian table. There’s that same bouquet of red roses from “Westminster” on the table. And in the background hangs that banner advertising chitterlings from a scene in “The Avenue.” Wallace’s ability to leave these easter eggs and weave these threads between the individual worlds of her subjects is phenomenal. 

My first visit to the Mehari Sequar Gallery, which is dedicated to articulating global narratives by examining the world through contemporary art, was for Wallace’s show, and I remarked to Agbaraji how refreshing it was to be in a Black-owned gallery and to witness Black people viewing Black art. Agbaraji said that part of her mission is to create ties between Baltimore and DC. 

When I asked Agbaraji about what inspired her to work with Wallace, she said she recalls finding her collages on Instagram. “I remember thinking how rich it was, the poses, the gazes. Then my research process continued, and I learned more about her process and absolutely fell in love with her voguing series,” Agbaraji says, adding that this series, which was published in The Cut, inspired a show on “queer sensuality.” 

“But then it only made sense to visualize how the action, vibrancy, and sensuality of that series sort of bled into the breadth of her photography and collage work,” Agbaraji continues. “I really like that about SHAN’s work. She lets you participate in so many different ways.”


SHAN Wallace, Westminster, 2021, collage on Breathing Color Elegance Velvet Bright White Fine Art paper


Header image: SHAN Wallace, Avenue Sisters, 2021, collage on Stonehenge paper

Art images courtesy of SHAN Wallace/Mehari Sequar Gallery. BMA images courtesy of the artist/Baltimore Museum of Art.

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