Close Looks: "holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor" by Shanequa Gay
Click on the arrow below to listen to an audio description of the featured work. Click on the transcript button to read the description.
Four heroic-scale figures combining human and animal forms, in shades of black, gray, and white, occupy three of the roughly-square gallery’s four walls. At the base of the middle of these three walls and beneath the figure that stretches across it, a group of twenty black glass vessels stands on a low white pedestal.
The best vantage point for seeing the entirety of this site-specific installation is with your back to the one blank wall in the gallery. This creates a viewing experience in which all the installation’s components are visible, directly or peripherally, and in which the imagery can be organized into left, right, and center portions, like a full gallery-sized triptych.
The gallery is thirty by thirty-one feet, with sixteen-foot ceilings. The open space bounded by the four walls is large enough to contain fifty chairs, with an aisle, and space for a lecturer or several musicians or dancers. If the gallery were set up for a lecture or performance, you would be oriented differently, facing the blank wall and the podium set beside it, and the imagery would encircle you from behind. With pandemic restrictions in place, it is a space that can safely accommodate eight visitors.
If you remain oriented with your back to the blank wall, and examine the four figures from left to right, you begin with one of the walls interrupted by a door frame. The figure on this wall shows the head and the upper part of the torso, to just below the arms. The arms and one hand, painted in black, spread wide across about three quarters of the wall’s surface (encompassing the open space of the doorway that leads into the next gallery) and the head tilts slightly, as if to peer around the door frame. Someone walking through that doorway might appear to be in the figure’s embrace. The other arm ends at the elbow and at the boundary of the blank fourth wall and carpeted floor. Over one of the figure’s shoulders, an area of blank wall reads like the strap of a jumper worn over a black turtleneck.
The form of the figure’s head, painted in black and grays with patches of white visible within the colors, is large in comparison to that of the shoulders and arms, and it has an irregular perimeter. The outline of the head resembles that of an antlered creature, though the imagery within the outline is different. A human cheek, most of a human nose, and the corner of a human mouth appear in the area where one might expect to see the head of an animal with antlers. At the top of the head area, we see almost all of two human eyes, irises and pupils positioned so that they appear to be looking back at viewers in the gallery, seeming to twinkle with white highlights. One black line at the corner of the leftmost eye, a little longer than the lines indicating eyelashes, might represent eyeliner, perhaps suggesting that the face belongs to a woman wearing makeup. Parts of the eyes, forehead, and hair appear in fragmentary form within the outlines of the antlers. It is as if portions of the woman’s face is visible through a deer head-shaped cutout.
The full-length figure on the middle wall reclines, extending across the majority of the wall’s space, leaving perhaps a couple of feet of blank space at left and at right. The figure’s outline is that of a creature with antlers and hooves lying on its back, nose and rear legs pointed upward and long, curving stomach exposed. As with the figure on the left wall, however, the imagery that appears within the figure’s outline does not necessarily conform to what might be expected if one were judging only by the figure’s contours. The head and shoulders recall the features of the figure on the left wall. The shape and expression in the eyes, the shadows around the nose (here visible in its entirety), the contour of the upper lip look as though it might be the same face, turned slightly to be able to gaze at viewers from this new position. The gaze is compelling enough, perhaps, to distract the viewer’s eye from the fact that the head’s outline is in profile. If the face were represented in a manner consistent with the outline, it would be looking upward toward the ceiling instead of outward, and it would presumably have animal features, perhaps those of a deer, given the presence of the antlers. The long, graceful arm and fingers painted in black seem to be the same as those in the previous figure, an area of white adjoining the shoulder might be another view of what looked like a jumper in the other figure. While this figure’s body, starting midway through the rib cage, is that of animal, it is not that of a deer. Instead it is a zebra, with a wavy pattern of black and white zebra stripes suggesting the form, muscles, hooves of the animal.
Two more antlered figures appear on the wall at the right of the gallery, one figure on either side of the gallery’s other doorway. The full-length figure to the left of this doorway, the one closest to the reclining figure on the adjacent wall, stands facing the gallery’s center. Within the antlered outline of this figure’s head, more of the human face is visible than in the previous two. The human face here, too, bears a close resemblance to those in the previous two figures, with recognizable eyes, nose, cheeks, and lip. Here we also see forehead, eyebrows, the full mouth — including teeth — and chin. This face turns in a slight three-quarters angle to the viewer, but as the other faces do, this one also looks at the viewer, and the lips are parted in a smile. The majority of this figure’s body is human, and the clothing that in other figures seemed to suggest a black turtleneck and white jumper is here as well, with squiggly white lines appearing against the black shirt just above the jumper’s neckline. Perhaps they are a design printed on the shirt or crocheted trim on the jumper. The jumper fits close below the breasts and around the waist — perhaps it is belted — and the skirt falls just above ankle length, with a few pleats visible. The outline of the skirt is incomplete, but there is enough information to conclude that it is all there. The broad vertical area of black paint along the skirt’s left edge reads like an area of shadow, implying that there is brilliant light at the right edge that obscures our view of that side. Beneath the skirt’s hem the ankles of two striped, hooved animal legs support the body, their lower edges just an inch or two above the air vents at the base of the wall. Here, as in the first figure, the black-clad arms extend outward from the body, with two important differences. Here, the arms are held much lower, much closer to the body. It is really only the forearms that separate from the body. And here, the palms are turned to face us, carefully delineated with black outlines surrounding most of the fingers and with black shadows that indicate creases in the palms and separate each joint of each finger. The pattern of alternating black and white on the fingers creates a visual rhyme with the zebra stripes on the ankles.
The companion figure, appearing on the other side of the doorway on this wall, is a half-length figure, also facing the center of the gallery, in an almost frontal position, but turned slightly in the direction of the blank wall at right. Inside the outline of the by now recognizable antlered head, the now recognizable facial features again look at us. Here we see almost all of both eyes and some of each eyebrow, the nose, a more narrow section of the cheeks on either side of the nose, and most of the mouth — just a bit of the lower lip is cut off by the collar of the black turtleneck. As in the figure on the other side of the doorway, the lips here are parted, upper and lower teeth visible, either smiling or about to speak. There are enough facial features visible in this figure and the one beside it to confirm what the first two figures’ faces suggest: this is the face of Breonna Taylor, recognizable even to people who did not know her, from widely published news stories about her death. In this fourth figure of Breonna Taylor, the white areas resembling the straps of a jumper are here, though the linear ornament near the jumper’s neckline is not. A broad black band with an irregular outline and an oval spot of white encircles the garment across the lower part of the breasts. It is difficult to tell if it’s a stripe, another garment wrapped around the body, or something else. At the lower edge of this stripe, a white shelf installed on the gallery wall intersects the painted form. Below the shelf there is another painted black form. It aligns with the right edge of the figure’s clothing but does not extend as far leftward as the other edge of the figure. Just as in the skirt on the full-length figure, here the skirt is partially painted, partially implied. Breonna Taylor’s arms are extended high above her head, reaching to within several inches of the gallery wall’s cornice. Her right palm faces forward, her left palm turns slightly toward the gallery’s back wall. The slight curve of her arms creates a frame for her antlered head. There are fewer shadows painted across the frontal right palm here than in those of the full-length figure of Breonna Taylor, leaving a more noticeable area of white, outlined in black, and making a stark contrast with the long expanse of her black-painted arm.
To see the details of the glistening black glass vessels along the center wall, positioned on an altar-like platform just beneath the elegant curve of the reclining Breonna Taylor’s forearm — her finger echoing the shape of the vessels’ finials — it is necessary to move closer and bend over or sit down. The vessels are composed in a group that alternates taller, lower, and mid-height pitchers, goblets, tumblers, candy dishes, and other pieces. The tallest ones are in the center of the grouping, and the lower ones around the perimeter. They are all highly reflective. The different surface patterns — diamond shapes, studs, and other designs — make light reflect and refract in a complex pattern. Peering inside the unlidded vessels from above, the glossy interiors are so shiny that it is difficult to tell if they are empty or if they hold water.
From this closer vantage point, it is more difficult to take in the heroic scale of the reclining Breonna Taylor, but easier to notice that her figure is painted on the wall in shades of black, and gray against the white background of the wall. The black paint absorbs light for the most part, but from certain angles it is possible to see the reflection of a raised brush mark. Turning attention again to the other figures, and moving closer to them, the same surface qualities are evident there too. Whereas from a distance the images of Breonna Taylor’s face resemble painted renditions of newsprint reproductions, up close the gray tones with which the face is painted glow and reflect light — in fact, they seem to sparkle.
Shanequa Gay, American, born 1977, holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor, 2020, acrylic, oil, Tiara Cameo Black glassware, and salt water. Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. © Shanequa Gay. Photographs by Alex Maness Photography.
When I enter the ART& gallery, which houses holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor, I see, and am immediately brought into, a kind of tension — an unrest in and of space. My attention is pulled toward each wall of the room — three of which hold towering monuments to Breonna Taylor, and one which holds blank, white space. When I fixate on a single “Devout,” the name that Gay has given to the zoomorphic figures, the initial tension over what to hold is reproduced. Although I notice unfamiliar and majestic bodies, it is her eyes that I see first. Inviting and unforgiving eyes that remind the viewer of the spirit of the human they constituted, lest we forget all that was stolen.
And then I see the bodies themselves — rendered in black and white, in human and animal forms, with broken silhouettes and contours — which all seem to echo the unrest endemic to the struggle to simultaneously hold Breonna’s memory and the history of forced memorialization to which it belongs.
Ultimately, I see an act of radical imagining/futuring that ensures the survival of a Black memory that is necessarily material and fantastic and reclaimed; I see Breonna, made boundless.
– Cortland Gilliam is a poet, educator, and doctoral student in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I see large, soft eyes watching from four elevated vantage points on three separate walls of a spacious gallery with a very high ceiling. The eyes of each of these figures all belong to Breonna Taylor. It’s Breonna’s face, but the bodies are foreign. One of those bodies is a zebra with antlers on its back with its hind legs in the air. On the walls perpendicular to the supine zebra are three figures that also appear to be physically vulnerable. Empty palms exposed, open hands raised high, these monumental chimeras reassert the status of Black women being unprotected fair game in American society.
The black and white palette reads to me as a metaphorical depiction of this matter-of-fact record of systemic injustice. The black glass vessels below the striped Devout reinforce that this installation is a memorial. While Breonna smiles over us, an intimately scaled altar is positioned for a community in mourning to deposit our grief. You would have to bow before her in order to fill any of the jars.
– William Paul Thomas is an artist, curator, and alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art program.
Click on the arrow below to listen to Amatullah King’s audio response to the featured work. Click on the transcript button to read the entire response.
[Excerpt]: The image from the installation that I focused most on is a reposing hybrid Breonna Taylor/zebra “floating” above an altar of delicate black glassware. At once I see weight and weightlessness. I see presence and absence. I see her direct gaze outward toward those gazing at her image. In repose, she is awake. Is it that she can’t rest? I know that feeling of being alert even in rest and during the ordinary mundane things as sleeping, or walking, or grocery shopping. Of learning to watch those watching me. It is a self-policing born of preservation … [Click on button below to read more]
Reaction to Shanequa Gay’s holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor
For this Close Look at Shanequa Gay’s installation, “holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor”, I focus on the image of a reposing hybrid Breonna Taylor/zebra floating above an altar of delicate black glassware. At once I see weight and weightlessness. I see presence and absence in the spaces between the zebra stripes. I also see her direct gaze outward toward those gazing back at her image. In repose she is awake. Is it that she can’t rest? I know that feeling of being alert even in rest and during the ordinary mundane things as sleeping, or walking, or grocery shopping. Of learning to watch those watching me. It is a self-policing born of preservation taught when I was young by my elders. Yes I know that look, that watchfulness for the mundane that can explode unexpectedly into something “other.” For her it was sleeping in her home. For me, it can be browsing through a store under the overly watchful eyes of store managers and detectives, being followed. Or standing with my mother at a display case in a major NYC department store and wondering why the other female customer moved her purse away from me — I was only a child. Or more recently, grocery shopping when a fellow shopper freaked out when my stepdad mistook her cart for ours. Initially, I tried to engage her, the fellow shopper, in humor. But she did not see the humor. Her continued and escalated shouts turned eyes toward my father and me. I became hyperaware of the “gaze” of others. For the freaked-out woman was white, and I and my father are Black. Funny, I didn’t “see” our race before then, but I sure did when a crowd began to gather. The mostly white customers did look toward my father and me in sympathy, but not one came to our defense, nor tried to quell the situation over an unpurchased cart mix up. The mundane suddenly got real, as I had to police my reaction and growing fear over what was happening. I had to quickly figure out how to gentle this woman out of her rage. Even if justified, if I blew up in an equally human way, I knew how the gaze toward me would shift. I would become just another “angry Black woman,” and that never ends well. For it becomes the justification for everything, obliterates any sympathy I might gain, and mitigates the original offense to my person. This is not unusual — the implication for Ms. Taylor’s death was that she was somehow engaged in some illicit doings, and therefore brought about her demise in some way. Black victims are always guilty of “something.” Would a store manager see the silliness of this situation? Or would my father and I be subjected to store authorities and then escalate to the authorities of police just based on this woman’s shouts directed at us? Not a funny situation anymore. It was summer during the protests for George Floyd, another victim of police violence after a store clerk alleged he tried to float a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. Would I be the next headline? A gaze on a wall? A symbol for a movement when all I wanted to do is simply lead my anonymous life by shopping for milk and eggs. Did Breonna Taylor, who at 26 years old shares the same birthday as my younger cousin, whose birthday is one day after mine — ever think her life would end like this, so publicly and awfully? That is what it means to be Black in America, to have life unexpectedly interrupted at any time, any place. That gaze on Breonna, is it solidarity? I feel the weight I see on the wall. This is heavy. As in heavy in my heart, my soul. I write this with tears in my eyes as I start to have misgivings about volunteering for this exercise because of the unexpected stuff this installation stirs. I am a Black woman, a New York born descendant, or as Ms. Gay’s term, which I like better, an “ascendant” of Black people in North Carolina, from people enslaved and Jim Crowed. I grew up listening to my exiled grandmother and grandfather speaking of their great love for NC. Yet they had to leave their home and family because they knew that the constant threat of racial violence and racial restrictions that dictated where they could or couldn’t live or walk or talk to “would never let me live to see children.” A direct quote from my grandfather. Heavy. So, I cannot look at this piece and not have a visceral reaction. Weight. I am uncomfortable because I feel the double consciousness burden of completing this exercise. I can’t just respond to the art without referencing the weight behind why this particular art comes to exist in this space in the first place. To respond authentically, through my truth, I must expose my position which makes others uncomfortable because I must wonder why we must die violently before we are seen and represented in such a hypervisual way in this space or any space. Are Black artists and artistry, Black people, only valid when we die in this very American way? Ms. Gay’s installation is gorgeous, supple, beautiful and brilliant — she is a powerful visual artist and deserves to be seen as such. Yet, one can’t escape that the reason that Ms. Taylor graces these walls is not an aberration, but baked into the fabric that extends beyond and encompasses her, me and all of us. That to exist in the mainstream US context (and I am using historian and author Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s definition of the American body politic that defaults to white) I must lie to absolve the American body politic’s involvement in Black death. For the carceral institution responsible for Ms. Taylor’s death was seeded in the institution of slavery, but given life ironically in its abolition when the ratification of the 13th amendment included a loophole that ensured that de facto slavery would continue through the criminalization of Black people for doing such things as loitering, or just being poor. It still serves a purpose. Prison labor still provides the comforts of our existence as it did then when a country emerging from a devastating civil war realized that they still needed the labor of the people they’d just released from bondage. Heavy. Indeed. Unpacking this image would take a lifetime. I’ve probably already exceeded my allotment. The combination of the human and animal form as explained by Ms. Gay quelled my first reaction of why someone would depict her as half-animal. Again, I am responding to history and experience. Black women have variously been deemed the “mules” of labor. Mule — a hybrid animal tasked with grueling and thankless work. It was enough to prompt the Black female abolitionist Sojourner Truth to ask in a famous speech: “Aren’t I a Woman?” as she recounted the ways in which the protections afforded through that era’s cult of motherhood and womanhood didn’t extend to her when she was in bondage. It couldn’t — she was too lucrative for her dual worth in gold — to work in the fields like a man, and to manufacture more Black bodies to fuel free labor. Today, the specter of this haunts the ways in which Black women don’t receive the same palliative care in healthcare facilities, whose recompense in the labor market still lags behind everyone else, and who can be surveilled and killed with the same dismissive regard as men, all while still achieving and excelling in a constellation of fields, marching and organizing, and building, and working, and raising children and communities, and delivering votes to Presidents and Vice Presidents (the often silent essential yet thankless work). So, I didn’t get the artist’s choice initially. In my own research, I learned that animals don’t sleep with their stomachs exposed, as it is the most vulnerable part of their bodies. I have learned that if they do, it is a sign of trust, that they feel completely safe. Hybrid Breonna is depicted belly up. Juxtaposing this knowledge with Ms. Gay’s explanation “that zebras are unable to sleep unless a herd member is standing guard and awake.” I realized Gay has made a space where conjoining the animal and human pulls from other traditions — with positive and even sacred energy. Breonna Taylor in the visual image is completely safe though she was robbed of that safety in life. She/this image took me by the hand and led me to leave behind the mostly negative connotations so embedded in my experiential learning of what it means to be Black and female, and my constant fight to prove the humanity and vulnerability of the Black female body. I was led to a devout space, a space of healing, a space where I can lay the sword down so to speak. Where one can mourn, meditate, re-think, re-make, re-birth. Yet we are reminded of how fleeting and delicate this space is. The heavy weightlessness of Ms. Taylor’s form floats above the delicate and by comparison dwarfed altar of Tiara glass. Is it memorial or sacrificial offering? Also, is it a statement that life, particularly, Black life is ever floating above glass? It prompts me to wonder if the walls hold enough space for the inevitable others that will follow. As I write this, I have just turned away from a news report of another mistaken identity police raid on a Black woman’s home, this time in Chicago. She is a professional like Breonna, a social worker in a hospital, who after work comes home to prepare for bed. Instead, confused and terrified she keeps repeating they’ve made a mistake as the police don’t offer her cover, but handcuff her naked. Surrounded by all male white officers, she is NAKED in every sense of the word. I have to cut off the image, because oddly it reminds me of old lithograph images of women on a slave block, with people indifferent to her exposure as they investigate, intrude and offer no cover, no aid nor protection. The woman from Chicago counts her blessings that she is alive. I guess humiliation and her lost sense of safety is better than death? In closing, this installation, took me through an internal journey in which I had to confront and question internal and external “truths,” place, spatiality, what it means to be different identities of Black and female and American as I have experienced walking in this body as Black first, female second, and American last as others see me. If one questions that truth, I posit this: how would you feel if you were subjected to hearing “go back to Africa” at various times in life?
The installation also made me ruminate and leave on the altar amongst that delicate glass a hope and calling: What if the world stood guard for the living Breonna Taylors as much as the dead — where Black female lives (my life) are worth guarding as much as in the living realm as in the spiritual? How would that transform us all and lead us to a more devout, more noble place?
– Amatullah King is the Executive Assistant for the Ackland Art Museum, and has held positions with UNC’s Institute of African American Research and Carolina Seminars. A graduate of Cornell University, her intellectual interests continue to be in African American history, culture, preservation, and social and restorative justice.
- What words come to mind when looking at this artwork? What emotions does it spark? What do you see that inspires them?
- The title of this work is holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor. Describe the artist’s use of space — what is empty and what is full. Imagine you are in the physical installation. How would your experience of the artwork change by being in the physical space? What are the additional ways it holds space — conceptually, psychologically, emotionally — for you?
- What are your associations with nobility? How do you see and understand it here?
- Shanequa Gay frequently creates figures that combine human and animal characteristics which she calls the Devouts. “Each Devout can draw from their animal spirit the ability to heal and empower,” according to Gay. For example, deer regenerate their horns, zebras guard slumbering members of their herd. What powers must we call upon to heal and empower our communities?
- Shanequa Gay’s installation is a memorial for Breonna Taylor. Not only does this space remind the community of the events surrounding Taylor’s death, it honors her as an individual and, as the artist writes, “someone who was loved and is worthy of justice and being seen.” Consider the ways that memorials engage communities — how might this memorial invoke community participation and conversation? What are ways that you have memorialized someone important or an event in your life?
Close Looks at Cocktail Hour: Shanequa Gay
Wednesday, January 27, 2021 | 5 p.m. ET
Join the Ackland’s Object-Based Teaching Fellow, Erin Dickey, for an informal conversation focused on one work of art from the Ackland’s new Close Looks digital feature. Plan to look closely and think collectively — and bring a drink of your choosing. On January 27, we’ll look at Shanequa Gay’s holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor.
Space is limited. Register here.
Artist Conversation with Shanequa Gay
View the recording of a virtual conversation between artist Shanequa Gay and Lauren Turner, the Ackland’s assistant curator for the collection. They discussed the inspiration for and context of Gay’s commissioned installation holding space for nobility: a memorial for Breonna Taylor on November 13, 2020, shortly after the work was installed at the Museum. Click on the arrow to watch the recording.