Focus On

SHAN Wallace

BY Jean Dykstra, May 19, 2020

The Baltimore Museum of Art made an unprecedented commitment to female artists last year by announcing that every work of art the museum acquired in 2020 would be by a woman and that each of the planned exhibitions would have a female-centric focus. One of those exhibitions, SHAN Wallace: 410, also has hometown roots. The title of the show, which the artist herself calls a love letter to Baltimore, is a reference to the city’s area code. A Baltimore native, Wallace makes portraits of the city’s black men, women, and children with affection and deep familiarity. A young man giving a bottle to the baby cradled in his arms; a quartet of children, arms draped around each other; a collection of people waiting (and waiting) on a bench at a bus stop; a woman in her Sunday best and church hat – Wallace’s photographs capture the small moments that form the texture of everyday life in the city.

SHAN Wallace, from Golden Time of the Hour, 2018. Courtesy the artist

Central to Wallace’s practice is her desire to expand the photographic representation of black people in our country’s archives of images beyond those of “black people being brutalized or images of black pain” to include images of community and dignity. But she also re-envisions the concept of the archive itself as an elastic, informal organizing system that can flow through people’s homes and neighborhoods rather than residing in institutions. She gives copies of her photographs to the people in them and sees the immediate effect of being seen and recognized. “That’s what archiving is,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be in a library, it can be hanging in your living room.”

SHAN Wallace, Black America, 2016. Courtesy the artist

Once the museum reopens, visitors will have access toWallace’s installation, which includes framed photographs hung on three wall-sized murals and a selection of card stock images arrayed on shelves from her series Golden Time of the Hour. The five-year project documented the community around Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore, a fixture in Wallace’s childhood. The market is being renovated –  demolition began in April – and Wallace fears a familiar pattern, that gentrification that will push out the people in her photographs, the families gathering, friends meeting up, trading gossip, buying lunch, dancing on Saturday afternoon, people who have been going to the market for generations. For the time being, though, Wallace’s warm-hearted portraits can be seen on the museum’s website (where you can also find her observations on individual images in the show), not to mention her own website and via Instagram.

SHAN Wallace, Paca Street, 2016. Courtesy the artist
SHAN Wallace, Cousin Alex in Cuba, 2017. Courtesy the artist. This image is not included in the Baltimore Museum of Art exhibition