Meet Shanequa Gay. Shanequa is one of the many artists around the USA who make bike riding more welcoming through the inclusive, educational and celebratory nature of their public art. She was one of the artists selected to create murals for a series titled Off the Wall around the themes of civil rights and social justice within a mile or so of Mercedes Benz Stadium in Downtown Atlanta for the Super Bowl in 2019 with support from the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee, the City of Atlanta, and the WonderRoot arts organization (and informed by community conversations).
I had the opportunity to interview Shanequa (and all the artists) when working with Robyn Elliott (previously featured here in the “You Go, Girl!” series) of Bicycle Tours of Atlanta to create the Off the Wall Bike Tour. The murals remain as part of the ever-growing and completely wonderful public art landscape of the City of Atlanta (where I did most of my Traveling at the Speed Bike prior to COVID-19), and they continue to question, delight, and inspire people who cross paths with them.
I’d like to use the opportunity of this blog post this morning to shine a light on Shanequa’s murals that were part of the Off the Wall series.
At the Vine City MARTA station directly across the street form Mercedes Benz Stadium, there’s a mural that literally surrounds you as you are coming and going. Shanequa Gay was particularly moved by a community conversation with a nonprofit named Covenant House that serves youth experiencing homelessness. These teens may be runaways or trafficked or aged out of foster care. They may be kicked out of their homes because they came out as LGBT. Or they may have substance abuse or other problems. And their needs for love and intimacy may not be met.
In order to explore the full range of humanity of the teens, Shanequa met with some of them for a photo shoot. She had them jump on a trampoline to relax, which made her think of the line “Excuse me while I kiss the sky,” from the Jimi Hendrix song, which then became the title of this mural. She then got the idea to have the teens actually make kissy faces to the sky, as a fun take on social media or pop culture and an expression of their need for love. She used these profiles as silhouettes in the background of this mural, and covered them with vegetation to represent the outdoors environment where many of them sleep or otherwise remain hidden on the fringes of society.
Shanequa’s work often explores hybrid cultures and how these cultures have often been rendered invisible and their identities denied. As the daughter of pastors who helped the homeless, the niece of an uncle with mental health issues who is homeless, and the mother of a teen boy, she told me she feels particular compassion for these young people. (I had the opportunity to volunteer for a few hours one cold winter morning to help paint this mural a teeny, tiny bit.)
This mural by Shanequa is titled Reframing Herstory and it highlights four little-known women that Shanequay herself discovered for the first time while working on the Off the Wall series of murals. A theme that emerged in community conversations was that of highlighting the accomplishments of African Americans, especially women, here in Georgia. Shanequa had already been doing a deep dive into the history of Auburn Avenue for another mural on this tour (she has three) and one of the names that kept coming up was Annie L. McPheeters. McPheeters was an educator and librarian at the Auburn Carnegie Library, which was Atlanta’s first public library for African Americans, opening in 1921. While there, she created the Negro History Collection as well as significant educational programs. Shanequay stated that McPheeter’s commitment to education of people of color was a huge, yet quiet assertion at the time.
As for the other women, Mathilda Taylor Beasley, known as Mother Mathilda and later Mother Beasley, was Georgia’s 1st black nun, and she started the first home for orphaned black girls. Dorothy Lee Bolden Thompson, who worked as a domestic as young as nine years old, eventually formed the National Domestic Workers Union of America. She helped 13,000 women from ten different cities secure better wages and working conditions. Selena Sloan Butler was a co-founder of the National Parent Teachers Association when a group she founded for black parents merged with a group for white parents. This mural is so important because it reframes African American women’s contributions so that passersby become intrigued enough to learn their names. Shanequa told me considers this mural, in all it simplicity, to be her most prominent work to honor black women.
This beautiful, colorful wall may remind you of a quilt, and that’s for good reason. Challenged with representing historical artifacts of Sweet Auburn Avenue, once the wealthiest block of African American businesses in the United States, Shanequa realized inspiration lay in the very quilt she sleeps with each night. It was her great grandmother’s and contains things like a scrap of her mother’s dress and a patch of her uncle’s jeans — history that was tattered and worn and ready to be recycled, rethought, remembered. Shanequa approached this mural that way and in doing so reduced the possibility that the African American contributions of patience, wealth, and prosperity which lived on this very avenue would be erased. She walked Sweet Auburn Avenue and picked out architectural details from fences. She combed through history at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. And she stitched her findings together like her grandmother’s patchwork quilt.
In this mural you can see a depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King; the logo of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King founded and which served as the center of the Civil Rights Movement right on Auburn Avenue; WERD radio, the first African American radio station; opera singer Matti Dobbs, one of the first African Americans to appear as a principal singer with the New York Metropolitan Opera, and the daughter of the Civil Rights leader John Wesley Dobbs; Ankara fabrics from Africa; and a church steeple symbolizing how churches served as beacons of hope.
See some of Shanequa’s work since then here. See more Art of Bike Riding in Atlanta and numerous other cities (New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Pittsburgh, and more) here and here. Many cities have tour companies like Robyn’s that offer specific public mural tours. Or just head on out there (on bike, of course) and see for yourself.
Tap in every day in August for my “You Go, Girl” series showcasing 31 Women in 31 Days who are making it more welcoming to ride bikes in the USA. If interested, you may enjoy my book, Traveling at the Speed of Bike. All proceeds from the sale of my book help more women and girls ride bikes.
The complete series:
10. Meet Irene Lutts
14. Meet Jenn Dice
28. Meet Megan Ramey
30. Meet Aly Nicklas