“My mum and dad really got creative with it!” says Diamond Antoinette Stingily, in a distinct Chicagoan accent. “They wanted a tough but feminine name – you can’t break a diamond, you know.” Just last year, Diamond left her native Windy City for the Big Apple, with $300 in her pocket. “I slept on a friend’s futon for a couple of months, then found a job at a dog boutique in Chelsea,” she says. “The ad on Craigslist said, ‘You must love pets’ and I wanted to see where it’d take me!” Things have sparkled for the artist since, with published work and her first solo exhibition now on in New York.
Daughter of House music icon Byron Stingily (lead singer of 80s-90s band Ten City), Diamond grew up on the West Side of Chicago with six siblings. In the tradition of confessional art, her practice is fuelled by personal and autobiographical experiences and it spans text, sculpture and video. “My childhood has influenced me a lot,” says Diamond. “You don’t change that much in life – it’s all the same shit when you get older, it just becomes more complicated. My work has a lot to do with my insecurities.” As a teenager, she worked at her mother’s hair salon, which became a socialising spot for her friends and family. “I spent a lot of time there and also got into a lot of trouble!” She laughs. “I would mostly just sit there and learn how to braid.”
Kaas, her first solo show in New York, takes inspiration from The Jungle Book and looks at the figure of the snake to question how characters are constructed and perceived. “In the original book, Kaa is a mentor and a friend. He’s the most respected animal in the jungle,” explains the artist. “Disney made him evil because he’s a snake and that’s more plausible.” The exhibition, mounted at the small but excellent Queer Thoughts gallery in Tribeca features a series of sculptural pieces consisting of braided hair extensions coming out of the walls, attached with multi-coloured plastic barrettes.
The seemingly naïve installation references the Greek mythological character of Medusa, the female monster with living venomous snakes in place of hair, who Diamond likes to think of as a misunderstood woman. “I’ve felt like a Gorgon in my life,” she tells us. “If you’re a 6.2ft black woman, people have these assumptions about you. If you can’t speak for yourself, your character will be changed.”
But in Kaas, The Jungle Book feels like just a contextual narrative for a broader social commentary, where the physical braid and the mythological snake become a space to negotiate the notion of assimilation. “If your hair isn’t to European standards, you get called names,” the artist tells us. “Black women are tired of relaxing their hair, it’s about accepting who you are.”
Diamond is also a published author: a reprint of her first ever piece, Love, Diamond, written when she was just eight years old, was published last year by independent publishing house DOMINICA. “I started posting extracts on Facebook,” the artist explains. “My friends thought they were hilarious and asked to see the rest of it. That’s how it got published.” She has another writing project, Middle School Minor, with artist friend Rachael Milton. It’s an online platform for short stories and poetry with accompanying themed playlists and is “about feeling like a middle-school child trapped in an adult’s body.” She still keeps a daily to this day. “Often it’ll be the start of an idea or a piece of work and will materialise into a different form.”
Kaas runs until June 19 at Queer Thoughts gallery, 373 Broadway #9 New York queerthoughts.com and Diamond Stingily is featured in a poetry project with Publishing House in Gstaad, Switzerland taking place in July publishing-house.me