In the winter of 2014, I happened to see the exhibition Deana Lawson: Mother Tongue at Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, and I was immediately hooked by the concentrated dignity of Lawson’s subjects.
As with all good artists, I wanted to see more of her work. In early 2017, she was part of a three-person show, Deana Lawson, Judy Linn, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, at Sikkema Jenkins (January 13 – February 18, 2017), which I reviewed. Her current exhibition, Deana Lawson, at Sikkema Jenkins (March 1 – April 7, 2018) is the first time she is having a solo show with this gallery.
Deana Lawson is a portrait photographer whose legacy includes the Harlem Renaissance photographer, James Van Der Zee; the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta; the Afrofuturist visionary jazz musician Sun Ra; and the Kamoinge group, the collective of African American photographers that began meeting in 1963, and counted Louis Draper, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith and Beuford Smith among its members. Lawson expands upon, as well as adds to, these rich and various histories, bringing something of her own to a storied table.
As the gallery press release states, Lawson makes portraits of black people in “South Carolina, Swaziland, Jamaica, and Soweto, South Africa; as well as around the artist’s own Brooklyn neighborhood.” But she does more than that. She confronts viewers with a complex, densely layered, multifaceted vision of black identity, as embodied by strangers and neighbors alike, with whom she has established an intense rapport, however brief.
We tend to think of portrait photographs as something intimate and modest in size, like the one depicted in “Brother and Sister Soweto” (2017), which leans against a mirror, which is itself leaning against a window. But Lawson’s portrait, a large pigment print that comes in a gold frame measuring 56.375 x 70.375 inches, immediately undoes that expectation. The choice of frame is deliberate and confers nobility upon the subjects.
In “Brother and Sister Soweto,” a young man and his much younger sister are standing in the middle of a room captured in a large, horizontal format we associate with landscape. Two walls of the room meet directly behind them, forming a triangular, wedge-like space with her subjects forming the vertical axis — something Lawson does in a number of her photographs. They are pictured in a palpable place rather than against a backdrop: they are the center of a world that they created. The photographs are highly composed and theatrical, but do not seem contrived. Lawson is attentive to every detail that falls within the camera’s prolonged gaze.
According to the artist, in a statement quoted on the New Photography 2011 web page of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, her works examine “the body’s ability to channel personal and social histories, drawing on the various formal and informal languages of the medium and its archival capabilities.” The details of the room are as important as the figures standing or seated in it.
Lawson’s scale enables her subjects to occupy a space large enough for them to look back at the viewer. Her titles relay the barest amount of information. A brother and his younger sister are standing in what we take to be his bedroom in Soweto, South Africa. He is wearing faded jeans and a three-button jacket over a dark shirt. He lifts his hand in a three-fingered gesture associated with rap music. His little sister stands shyly beside him, her face turned away from the camera and pressed against her brother’s side just above his hip. She wears a flower-print dress and a white sweater covered in red hearts.
The pride, defiance, and shyness radiating through this photograph adds up to a touching, impenetrable image. By impenetrable, I mean that you cannot reduce it to a story or a commentary about blackness: Lawson’s portraits are views from inside rather than outside. The individuals depicted are her family members, even if there is no blood relationship. You feel a certain unspoken bond between the subject and the artist.
In “Barbara and Mother” (2017), two women stand in the middle of the frame with their hands on their hips; they are at a three-quarters angle to the camera, with the younger one behind the older. Both of them face the viewer, smiling. It is hard not to feel their happiness. While certain details are apparent — the Bible and vase of flowers on one table, and the stereo equipment on a shelf — it is impossible to make any direct correlation between the women’s circumstances and their state of happiness.
The gap is telling. Lawson’s subjects resist any reductive or sociological reading we might try to apply to them. By encouraging her subjects to look directly at us, they resist objectification. In his book Totality and Infinity (1969), translated by Alphonso Lingis, the French Emmanuel philosopher Emmanuel Levinas made two observations that seem particularly relevant to Lawson’s photographs: “The face resists possession, resists my powers” and “the face speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation.” Lawson’s photographs speak directly to this ethical issue: what is your relationship with these individuals? How do you see yourself seeing them? Do you acknowledge their resistance, or do you ignore it?
In “Nation” (2018), which is easily the most unsettling photograph in the exhibition, we see two young, shirtless black men sitting on a brown imitation-leather couch. The man on the left, his head covered by a do-rag, grips a cell phone on his lap in one hand and points at us with the other, obscuring his face below his eyes. He is wearing two pendants around his neck, one of them a large ankh, the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic ideograph symbolizing the gift of an afterlife, granted to humans by Egyptian deities. The man beside him on the couch is covered in tattoos — his arms, stomach, chest, base of his neck. A large piece of metalwork is pulling his jaws apart, eyes rolled back in his head, presumably from whatever medication or narcotic he is on. A third shirtless man is visible standing against a wall in the upper right edge of the photograph; his upper body, including head, is covered by large photograph of George Washington’s dentures, which Lawson has tucked into the corner of the gold-leaf frame.
By inserting the photograph of the wooden dentures into the frame’s upper right-hand corner, Lawson echoes the layered imagery of “Brother and Sister Soweto,” transforming her gold-framed photograph into an oversized mirror on a bureau. We are looking at ourselves looking back, and we are not sure of what we are seeing. There is an obvious connection between the metalwork holding the man’s mouth open and the found photograph of the dentures, but it can never be reduced to a simple reading.
The exchange between Lawson and these two men is intense. She is on their turf, so to speak, both a stranger and not, and all of that and more comes through. The gravity and poise of her subjects bestow these photographs with a power that makes them about more than portraiture: they are about the ability of the I to see the Other.
Deana Lawson continues at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 7.