words by Katja Horvat
Deana Lawson (American, b. 1979, lives and works in New York) is an artist and photographer whose work examines the body’s ability to channel personal and social histories. Her next exhibition "Centropy" opens at Kunsthalle Basel in June 2020.
Deana Lawson works from image to image, confiding that she has “limitations in terms of thinking on the grander scale of a series.” In each photograph, she examines and determines what is missing, developing an oscillating relationship throughout her oeuvre. Using human somatic as an artistic body, she transforms the everyday and the known into something more beautiful and elevated. Fragmentation of each individual subject goes beyond the limit of thoughts; life gives way to silence. She represents the supreme truth of everyday Black lives, without alteration or censorship. But still, as much as it all comes together organically, it is essential to note that many of her photographs are meticulously staged—which, in the end, is just another testament to her genius.
It is important to recognize the dearth of representations of everyday Black lives in the canon of Western art history, and Lawson’s photographs challenge those gaps in representation. In much of Western art, the Black female body has been often represented through basic and realist stereotypes, from the mammy to the National Geographicarchetype. Lawson understands the limits of images of Black families and bodies in both art history and today’s popular media, and offers up new images. “I don’t take my position as a Black female photographer lightly,” she has said. “I am certainly aware of the stain of colonialism upon the Black body within photography. I’m working within a photographic history that is embedded with physical and psychic colonialism. But it is a privilege to be able to stand behind a camera and to construct my own desire and sense of eroticism in pictures. By making the work, I feel a profound sense of freedom and liberation.”
But as much as Lawson’s work is a formulation of photographers who paved the way, from James Van Der Zee to Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems, her visual interpretation stems primarily from her family. Born in Rochester, NY, she often says there is a family history to uphold and grow from: her paternal grandmother cleaned the house of George Eastman, an American entrepreneur and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company; her mother then worked at Kodak for almost forty years as an administrative assistant, while her father, an avid enthusiast when it came to photography and documenting their life on a daily basis, was a manager at Xerox. Lawson also has an identical twin sister, Dana, who is a point of reference and indirect subject in much of her work. She once explained that her questions surrounding her own identity in relation to others, which later expanded into investigations of the body and her stance in today’s society as an African-American woman, first began to grow through Dana: “One day my dad took a picture of us on a stoop together. Dana had broken her thumb before, so I was holding her cast in my own hand. We’re both dressed exactly alike. We both had the same frowns on our heads. That picture kind of pierced me. I think that was, like, the beginning of identifying with another person or trying to understand another human being’s pain, in a way, through looking at myself.”
Another significant experience came when Deana and Dana were nine years old and assisted their mother on a pin-up photoshoot, which she did as a wedding present for their father. Lawson often talks about the power of desire she felt that day, and not knowing if she was more jealous of her mother as a model or the photographer. Years later, Lawson wouldinterpret her mother’s body language, composition, and interior in many of her own pieces. Indeed, the visual vernacular of her work is often a monumental honoring of her family, with Lawson’s display and behavior drawn directly (if at times unconsciously) from her loved ones.
This blurring of representation and (self-)interpretation is present in every photograph she takes. Reimagining the possibilities of narrative where the body becomes the source of desire for expression, Lawson demonstrates a uniqueability to establish an explicit and honest relationship with her subjects, showcase pure exterior, and condense the given truth. “I think the reference to the family album is what creates an aura of familiarity,” says curator Eva Respini of the ICA Boston. “The artist considers her photographs visual testimonies where familial relationships, sexuality, and life cycles are repeated motifs. Her photographs work on several registers. Their large format imbues them with a formal studio portrait quality, yet the interiors, nudity, and intimacy between sitters point to the casualness of family snapshots. Lawson meticulously poses her subjects in a variety of interiors to create what the artist describes as ‘a mirror of everyday life, but also a projection of what I want to happen.’ It’s about setting a different standard of values and saying that everyday Black lives, everyday experiences, are beautiful, powerful, and intelligent.”