Who writes history? History is a narrative written by the winners, the colonisers, the settlers. However, art is a medium through which unheard voices are amplified. And that is precisely what Stan Squirewell uses his photography for. "My reworkings” he says, “are in reverence of those who came before me”. His current exhibition We Speak In Rivers boasts fifteen of the artist's new works: a chronicle of richly layered images that bring history to life. Now showing at the Claire Oliver Gallery in New York. Get there before it draws to a conclusion on the 13th of January 2024!
Hello Stan, thank you for speaking with us today. Your current exhibition We Speak In Rivers is an examination into the creation of history. Tell us a bit about the meaning behind the exhibition title.
The title of the show is a retake of one of Langston Hughes poems The Negro Speaks of Rivers. When I think of my lineage and family histories, I can’t help but feel a great sense of pride and gratitude for my family’s accomplishments and perseverance.
I find myself particularly drawn to the photograph Sunday Roses. Tell us a bit about the portraits you selected to comprise this collection. Whose stories are you telling through your art?
My selection process is fluid. There’s a high level of respect, admiration, and inquisitive thinking that draws me to certain images that then allow me access into them. My reworkings are in reverence of those who came before me. My maternal grandmother taught me many lessons about making positive relationships and walking with my head up proudly, especially with respect to our history.
I understand that your own history was obscured until you reached your 20s and realised that you had Indigenous roots. How did this discovery make you feel? How has your work influenced your own perspectives on history, identity, and social justice?
The discovery of my family story initially came as a shock. I was in utter disbelief. It also led me to the knowledge that I will never truly understand the gravity of stories lost in time. That gives me a great deal of peace of mind now. The narratives I was taught about my ancestry, I clearly see, are curated and written by others who may never acknowledge our triumphant spirits.
The pieces in the collection use a hypnotic amalgamation of fabric designs and patterns, some of which are luxury brands, that seem to both complement and contrast against each other. Where do you source such a variety of material?
The branding images that I source are most commonly found in my friends and family’s closets or consignment shops. Some are mine too. I’m very much into fashionable clothing and soon I think I’ll begin to create my own. I’m very interested in fashion as a way to self-express and like to explore different elements of that concept. For example, through textile patterns and luxury brand logos, which you see in some of my works – I explore how brands name material that carries the unseen labour of others within.
What is the biggest challenge you encountered when attempting to portray the voices of marginalised people through photography?
Marginalised! I dare not use that term in regard to my subject matter. They aren’t on the curb of anything. Yes, perhaps most of my figures may have gone through tough times but these are merely snapshots of them. We do not know anything more about their day to day lives. I grew up with little to no money, but I had a very enriched childhood. Now, because of those struggles and successes, I am the man you see today.
Can a line of reflection be drawn between the layers of fabric on your pieces and the layers of stories and histories that make each of us who we are? I understand that the photographs you use, from the 1900s, are anonymous. Is your art a medium through which you assign identity to anonymity?
Yes, I most certainly assign names to my pieces as a way to invite humanity back into them. All too often do we look at people as being lesser for their circumstances and in no way do I agree with that thinking. My layering does call to question what we think we know versus what really was or is. History is way too vast of a subject to fully comprehend it. I’d say that we know but a scratch of what happened today in the world. How can we assume we know the past when we weren’t there?
You have taken photography to another level with your work. Tell us about the process of assembling your pieces. How would you define your trailblazing style?
I’m a product of the late 70s and 80s during the formation of what we now call Hip Hop. I grew up with the desire to become a DJ. I scratched on my stepdad’s turntables. It comes very naturally for me to remix and play with images just the same.
What kind of response do you hope your work will inspire in viewers? What do you want people to walk away with?
The response to my work is exactly what I hoped and wished for. The adoration, appreciation, and love that my audience has shared with me about my work is truly amazing. I hope that my work sparks people to question their assumptions about Black and Brown people from this era: not everyone was enslaved, and not everyone was oppressed. There are a myriad of Black experiences and I hope I highlight this. In my own family history, I was raised not realising that I had Indigenous roots alongside my Black roots. This realisation has framed how I question narratives and history and has allowed me to connect with a totally different history and heritage than I once believed I had.