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For her exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel - the first presentation in Switzerland and the largest institutional exhibition of her work to date (until 10th October 2020) - American artist and photographer Deana Lawson gathers her ensemble of new and recent works, including a body of large-scale photographs, holograms, 16mm films, a video, and several installations of small snapshot images, under the title Centropy. In remembrance of George Floyd, Centropy recalls the West-African philosophical concept of Ashé, the ancestor’s ability to make things happen in the present moment and produce change: a multifocal autonomy constantly changing, an energetic attention to the diverse powers of the whole, the phenomenal world.

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Deana Lawson, Kingdom Come, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2015, Inkjet print, mounted on sintra, 55 x 44 inches, edition 1 of 3. Courtesy the Artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.

 

A few years ago, I tried to post a photo on Facebook which was immediately removed. It was the image of a woman, naked, in a plastic pose, graceful and elegant, leaning against the white leather sofa of her living room in Kingstone, Jamaica. At the center of this domestic privacy is Otisha, portrayed by Deana Lawson in 2013. Using the reclining Venus as an inspiration, Lawson constructs her own definition of blackness, power and femininity. I still wonder if the censorship on the photo was due to the nudity, explicit but delicate, or to the fact that the protagonist shows an unusual generosity and pride - looking us straight in the eye - like the tiger represented on the carpet at her feet. A pride that subverts our expectations - as for the scandal that surrounded the prostitute of Edouard Manet’s painting Olympia (1863) -, and the traditional canons of Western portraiture of female nudes, like the unapologetically erotic Venus of Urbino (1534) by the Italian painter Titian, or the numerous French copies of reclining women filled with Eros. 


             

From left to right: Deana Lawson, Vera, 2020, Pigment print, 155 x 105 cm; 159 x 109 cm, framed. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US; Deana Lawson, Nikki’s Kitchen, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Deana Lawson was born in 1979 in Rochester, New York, US. Her biographical details intertwine with the history of the photographic medium. Her grandmother was the cleaning lady of George Eastman, founder of the the Kodak Company for which her mother worked, while her father was employed in the Xerox Corporation, selling prints and digital documents. After graduatin in photography from the Pennsylvania State University and form the Rhode Island School of Designs, Lawson became a professor at Princetown University and CalArts. Later on, her teaching career led her to a brilliant artistic research in documentary photography. Deana Lawson reveals hidden grandeur and black magnificence in her hyper-staged portraits of strangers - scout out in Ethiopia, Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jamaica, the southern United States, and her neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.

 

       

From left to right: Deana Lawson, Axis, 2018, Pigment print, 142 x 179 cm; 146 x 183 cm, framed. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US; Deana Lawson, The Garden, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Lawson creates enough empathy to convince these “godlike beings” to pose for her, slipping lovingly and respectfully into their lives. The result is a form of visual resistance, a provocation towards racist images and stereotyped representation of black men and women. Chief (2019), adorned with sparkling gold jewels and a royal crown, sits in the velvet couch dip under an icon depicting Jesus and a tapestry of The Last Supper, but his kingdom is yet to come. “A gaze so intense that it’s the viewer who ends up feeling naked” - as English novelist Zadie Smith observed - characterizes the nudes in Axis (2018).

 

Deana Lawson,  Mama Goma, 2015. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

 

An impetuous photograph, symptom of abundance and provocative sensuality: three bodies, of different shades of brown, press against each other and open in a dizzying split. Not mainstream portrayals of African Americans - overrepresented as poor thugs, gangsters with gold teeth, spirit-eyed demons - but triumphant, complex and mysterious human beings. Political fragments of everyday black life which legitimize the feelings of belonging and resistance. Vera (2020) - a busty black woman with a plastic shower cap, all wrung out in her tight dress - is emblematic. Full of cultural liveliness, Lawson images exalt the alternative (that’s why they are orchestrated compositions), but extremely real experience of black identity who resists with intensity, despite the chaining white thought and system.

Cover image: Deana Lawson, Chief, 2019, Pigment print, 150 x 188 cm; 154 x 192 cm, framed. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US.

Written By Petra Chiodi

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