Deana Lawson's Cosmic Portraiture of Black Life

The photographer's exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York, captures the elemental power of Blackness by intermingling portraits with celestial installations

BY Ela Bittencourt in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 14 JUL 21

There’s plenty of chemistry in the new Deana Lawson show, ‘The Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy’, at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, though not the kind concocted in the aseptic confines of a laboratory. Seventeen large-scale pigment prints are displayed in the museum’s top-floor gallery, alongside crystal installation pieces and a stand-alone hologram displaying an organic swirl. In the photographs, Lawson’s Black portrait sitters are accompanied by homely icons and symbols that incarnate faith, but also ground spirituality in the earthy realm. Meanwhile, the intermingling of portraiture with celestial bodies encourages a reading of the whole as a constellation of spiritual forces, elemental powers visible and hidden.

Two portraits that struck me as the exhibition’s anchors face each other on a slight diagonal on opposite walls. The first, Latifah’s Wedding (2019), depicts newlyweds: the groom in a black suit and the bride in traditional white, her face partly covered by a lace veil. Cascading dollar bills are affixed to the couple’s garb, possibly a charm for their future prosperity. The composition’s multiple focal points ­– the bride looks out at the viewer, the groom leans in, with another Black woman further back drawing in the viewer’s gaze – recall Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Peasant Wedding, 1567. Like Bruegel, Lawson has the uncanny talent for enlivening still compositions and staging seemingly random and anecdotal scenarios. In the image, our attention is not only drawn to the variety of details – such as plastic cups and plates with a meal on the table – but also to the multiple lines that splinter the picture, including a random black cable that swings into the composition from the upper right, the back support of a black office chair and a golden coat rack. The image appears both random and staged, intimate yet prescribed within ceremonial rites.

Deana Lawson, Barrington and Father, 2021. Pigment print, 73 3/4 × 57 7/8 in. (187.3 × 147 cm). © Deana Lawson, courtesy the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Deana Lawson, Barrington and Father, 2021. Pigment print, 187 × 147 cm © Deana Lawson. Courtesy: the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

The second is the remarkable funereal portrait Monetta Passing (2021). Once again, the sitter, dressed in black, looks out at the viewer. The mourner leans over his partner’s corpse, regally laid out on satin sheets. The bed angles down towards the viewer, heightening the dramatic effect. A lush, heavily embroidered spread covers the deceased’s feet. Everything about this image speaks of love encapsulated within the devotional orchestration of a farewell. There’s the proximity of the mourner’s face to the beloved, and the echo of their hands: his tensed, hers cupped, gloved and poised. The mustard-coloured curtains offset the richness of the purple sheets and violet accents in the funereal wreath, lending the picture a nearly baroque sense of gravitas.

In Holy Mami (2021), a young Black woman strikes a nude pose in front of the image of the goddess Oya, a Yoruba protectress of women. The sitter’s gaze and her body’s twist are made even more dramatic thanks to the sensuality with which she strokes her face with her long, sparkly nails. In the background, the goddess’s painted visage, her face half lively flesh, half skeletal skull, serves as a voluptuous memento mori. The diasporic breadth of Lawson’s work is also evident in Daenare (2019), taken in Salvador, Brazil. The photograph depicts a pregnant Black woman in the nude, leaning back against a roughly finished staircase of a home. The picture’s seemingly smooth inscription in the tradition of historical nudes – Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia come to mind – is thrown into sharp relief by the small prison bracelet on the woman’s ankle, a reminder of Brazil but also of the Unites States’ systemic racism and its impact on mass incarcerations.

Deana Lawson, Young Grandmother, 2019 © Deana Lawson, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York; David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
Deana Lawson, Young Grandmother, 2019 © Deana Lawson. Courtesy: the artist, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

Black Gold (“Earth turns to gold, in the hands of the wise,” Rumi) (2021) depicts a young Black man with gold chains swung around his forearms, his golden shirt vibrant against the dark brick background with a small side stand displaying perfume brands. The hologram embedded in the photograph shows Ron Finley, a Black fashion designer and guerrilla-gardening activist in the field, in overalls and with a rake slung over his shoulder. Lawson establishes a double temporality, the young man’s image in colour, Finley’s in black and white, turned shimmery by the hologram. Lawson evokes Black labour in a prophetic context, yet grounds spiritualism in the hard facts of material existence. More than any other photograph in the show, Black Gold doesn’t shy from positing the precariousness of the capitalist value exchange, while managing to foreground gold as vital to the sitter’s self-expressivity.

'Hugo Boss Prize 2020: Deana Lawson, Centropy' is on view at the Guggenheim, New York, through 11 October 2021.

Main image: Deana Lawson, Chief, 2019, pigment print © Deana Lawson. Courtesy: the artist, Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo, Brazil.