Lawson’s framed photograph Soweto Queen (2017) shows a nude black woman curled up in the corner of a couch, staring outward toward the invisible corner of the room. She is centered in the image, yet her foot grazes the edge of a side table covered with framed family photographs, guiding the viewer’s gaze toward these mementos: a young boy smiling in a heart-shaped frame; a little girl in a white frilly dress, perhaps from a christening or religious occasion; another young girl, further back in a more decorative frame, smiling. Soweto Queen projects the tenderness of domestic life, suggesting that it, like many of Lawson’s photographs, was pulled from a family album. This intimacy is at odds with the oversized scale of the image and its presentation in the white cube gallery space, as is the title, which elevates the figure of a modest woman to the status of “Queen,” seated cozily but regally, defiantly meeting the camera’s eye. Lawson’s photographs unite the mundane with the mythic, presenting black figures in a context they are often not afforded in their daily lives.
Lawson’s first monograph was released by Aperture in 2018, and it contains many of the works from the Sikkema Jenkins & Co. show, including Soweto Queen. With a lush deep magenta cloth cover and heavy, marbled endpapers, the book evokes the feel of an inherited, regal family album. But unlike an album, which is often crammed with photographs and handwritten captions, each of Lawson’s pictures has its own spread with the plate on the right page and nothing opposite (the titles are relegated to a final index). The pictures themselves may be crowded with things, but the minimal spreads offer their audience the time and intimacy these images demand in order to take in both the figures and each of the marginal artifacts Lawson includes — from clusters of framed photographs and stack of books, to elaborately patterned wallpaper and lush curtains. The staging of the images magnifies a tension between the hopeful future evoked by Lawson’s majestic poses and the realties suggested by the quotidian piles of stuff, visible on the shelves.
The monograph opens with an essay by Zadie Smith (first published in The New Yorker as “Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory” on April 30, 2018) that focuses on the circumstances of Lawson’s subjects and the imagined narratives the artist creates for them through her images. “Deana Lawson’s work is prelapsarian — it comes before the Fall,” Smith explains: “Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look: Brownsville, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa.” Smith articulates the contradiction Lawson’s positioning produces: titles and poses that recall the characters of Eden, nude beauties unencumbered by The Tree of Knowledge, but instead of showing the figures associated with this story as they have been conventionally shown in Western European art, Lawson shows black women and families from underprivileged communities surrounded by the realities of their daily lives.
Around the same time as this monograph’s release, Lawson was commissioned to photograph Rihanna for Garage magazine. Despite the intensive styling involved in celebrity fashion shoots by designers who select clothes, accessories, makeup, and hairstyling, Lawson maintained what critic Antwaun Sargent called “The Deana Lawson touch on the shelf,” pointing out a framed childhood photograph of the popstar on a shelf in the background. In many of the images, Rihanna reclines leisurely on couches and against chairs in poses that evoke art history’s canon of elegant — usually nude — white women, most famously Manet’s Olympia, which the opening picture of Rihanna, stretched out on a beige patterned divan, suggests. In other words, Lawson upends painterly convention by positioning Rihanna, clothed, in the place of the nude white woman.
In one photograph, Rihanna lies on the bright purple floor against a plush armchair, a shelf in the background scattered with more framed photographs — possibly showing more images of her youth — and next to that, almost like a backdrop, are lush soft purple curtains, recalling similar curtains in Soweto Queen. Such curtains are more than just a backdrop for Lawson’s layered images; they establish a frame within the existing frame of the lens, marking off a secluded place with Lawson’s trademark attention to the details of ephemera. In most of the photographs set indoors, the backgrounds display a range of curtains — lush and velvet, small and sheer. In her monograph essay, almost as an aside, Smith specifically mentions Lawson’s use of curtains, noting that
paragraphs could be written on Lawson’s curtains alone: cheap curtains, net curtains, curtains taped up — or else hanging from shower rings — curtains torn, faded, thin, permeable. Curtains, like doors, are an attempt to mark off space from the outside world: they create a home for the family, a sanctuary for a people, or they simply describe the borders of a private realm.
Like the other artifacts shown, the type of curtains Lawson chooses discloses something intimate about the economic circumstances of the setting while still offering a moment of interiority and privacy.
Coulson Family (2008) has great curtains — dark brown patterned velvet — hanging in three vertical unevenly spaced rows against a bright blue painted wall, with the top edges unfinished and still white, as if the family didn’t have a ladder quite tall enough to reach the ceiling properly. Against these curtains smile the Coulson family: a woman flanked on either side by a young boy each in a button-down shirt. A small, fake Christmas tree covered in bright blue and gold garlands leans up against the closest boy. The curtains fully block out the light and full view of the window, matching the light brown wall-to-wall carpet below the family. On the right side of the image is pure Lawson magic — a large outdated box television sits in a console that is piled high with DVDs and adorned atop with framed family photographs and a bronze baby shoe. Lawson’s curtains build private worlds for her characters, giving them a unique space from which to shut everything unhomely out.
In Sons of Cush (2016), a heavily tattooed, fit, black man sits shirtless, holding a small baby girl in a blue dress pressed up to his face. The baby and the man both face out, his eyes staring directly at the viewer. He sits in a home, on his right a cluster of framed photos and an open Chips Ahoy! container; on his left the edge of another man on the couch holding a stack of money; behind him the front door with the top glass taped off with plastic. Lawson explains the making of this artwork to fellow artist Arthur Jafa in an interview included in the monograph, “The Direct Gaze.” She claims she originally tried to execute the photo using a man and his niece in Flint, Michigan, “but it didn’t work. The lighting was off. The man didn’t have the vibe.” So she carried around the props for the shoot — a specific dress for the baby girl — still waiting for the right scenario until her assistant told her he knew someone who had just had a baby girl two months ago:
We had already done scouting for the house earlier. I wasn’t even tied to this particular location, but at the end of the day it really ended up being the only place we could do it, and I’m glad we did. Because there are certain things on the wall, there are certain pictures, the foil on the door, that I would have never imagined.
Lawson builds layered realistic depictions of black life out of scattered personal ephemera. This materiality reaches out of the seemingly simple portrait of a man and a baby, making it a historical image — an image that references histories outside of itself, both ordinary family histories on tabletops and mythic histories of black bodies.
Smith opens her essay with a description of Sharon (2007), addressing how Lawson’s embrace of the mythic empowers women of color: “Imagine a goddess. Envision a queen. Her skin dark, her hair is black.” Yet Smith also reminds readers that ugly histories continue to haunt Lawson’s work — histories of “slavery and colonialism, of capitalism and subjection, of islands and mainlands, of cities and ghettos.” As Jafa notes, “It’s like black people are inherently scarred by our circumstances, and you’re trying to take photographs of them that look past that, like an X-ray looks past surface scars.” Yet Lawson challenges the fortitude of these histories; her details of home free her subjects to emerge out of them as noble, stately humans.
Megan N. Liberty is an arts and culture writer based in Brooklyn. She is the Art Books editor at the Brooklyn Rail and has a master’s in Art History from The Courtauld Institute of Art in London.