Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, Diamond Stingily spent much of her time in her mother’s hair salon with family and friends. Her first publication, Love Diamond (2014), a transcription of her childhood diary, set the tone for much of her current work, the hauntingly precocious and introspective language of her eight-year old narrative anticipating an overlooked but lasting retention of youth. Stingily’s experience is directly reflected in her work, her sculptures serving as melancholic totems of a haunted nostalgia.
In her first solo show, “Kaas,” presented last year at Queer Thoughts, Stingily drew from the snake character Kaa in the Jungle Book, exhibiting a series of minimal yet laborious black synthetic braids varying in length. The cascading plaits, fastened with brightly colored plastic barrettes and knocker-balls, evoked a playful tactility and familiarity of black girlhood. Stingily’s Kaas, starkly positioned against a white background, demand attention: the gesture of nailing them into the wall is a powerful decree of violence, as the dark youthful braid, free and snaking to the floor, is transfixed to the white facade. The playful nature of longer braids, subject to the trampling feet of viewers, assumes a new identity, their hypervisibility triggering the normalized assaults on the black body we see everyday. Translated into the gallery space, their existence inherently demands reverence, but their newfound objecthood reflects the disrespected nature of Kaa himself, whose original wisdom was revered by the forest until Disney turned him into an easily palatable villain. In Stingily’s world, if braids are Kaas, black women are the Gorgon Medusa, holding wisdom in our hair, our power misunderstood, our history beautiful and morose.
WHIMSICAL AND DARK AT ONCE, A CELEBRATION OF BLACK GIRLHOOD NAVIGATING PERSONAL AND SHARED MEMORY
The dark undertone to Stingily’s outwardly whimsical work is ever-present in her most recent show at Ramiken Crucible, “Elephant Memory” (2016). In the title, we again encounter the heavy burden of reminiscence: reconciling a fraught history committed to memory, the works gesture toward the troubled ancestral history and trauma that black children digest, internalize and carry with them. In How Did He Die?, cleanly organized wreckage of worn bats, barred and beaten doors, and chains adorned with synthetic hair are set to the eerie call of childhood chants. Projected behind a chain-link fence, the looped video seems to shelter itself, as objects of childhood innocence take on defensive qualities: telephone cords coil to create double-dutch ropes; a fence obstructs young girls’ game of call and response; baseball bats stand at the ready of armored doors.
Stingily’s work is both inviting and disarming, enticing viewers but never fully revealing itself. A redacted childhood diary, braids that meet no scalp, bolted doors that guard blank walls, all tangibly physical yet synthetically constructed: her work is constantly contradicting itself, mining the trauma embodied in everyday objects. It denies comfort sought.
Stingily courageously navigates between consolation and discomfort, personal and shared memory. Her work celebrates youthful perception, black creativity and resilience while simultaneously thrusting the viewer into their current disposition, with its fear of contact, normalized violence and ancestral hardship. Stingily dares viewers to self-reflect on their position with these now-venerated objects that they themselves may have violated in the past. She calls forth the history and struggle ingrained in the everyday, whether that be a projected conjecture or truth.
Diamond Stingily (American, b. 1990) is an artist who lives and works in New York. In 2016, she exhibited with Queer Thoughts and Ramiken Crucible.
Hanna Girma is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles, where she currently serves as Assistant Curator at The Mistake Room.
Portrait by Crystal Zapata