The Many Problems with Deana Lawson’s Photographs – Hyperallergic

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The text that the Guggenheim Museum had placed on the webpage for Centropy, Deana Lawson’s Hugo Boss Prize exhibition, was indeed intriguing. It promised a body of conceptual photography in which “the everyday is transfigured into the uncanny and the magnificent” by drawing upon “the legacies of historical portraiture, documentary photography, and the family album, but [it] transcends these traditions, constructing scenes that merge lived experience with imagined narratives …. The aesthetics and intergenerational connectivity of the Black diaspora guide Lawson’s choice of subject matter. Each of her works takes its place in an overarching project, cohering into what she terms ‘an ever-expanding mythological extended family.’”
Wow. But what does “centropy” mean? A google search only revealed links to Lawson’s show, and a stray entry on the Urban Dictionary. Was this a bespoke term for the new visual order that Lawson had miraculously achieved? How was this fantastical language, and the highly orchestrated images that Lawson made by placing models that she had specifically sought out or strangers that she approached in public places and then paid to pose in locations of the artist’s choosing, changing the ways that Black people are being seen in the space of the gallery or museum? Was Lawson really picturing Black people in a transcendent and “magnificent” new ways, I wondered.
Over the past three or four years I had become familiar with Lawson’s work but was yet to see it in person. Since an appreciation for and curiosity about the aesthetic expressions of Black life in the United States and throughout the African diaspora is a key motivator for my own work, I wanted to see Centropy for myself.
Compelled by the spirit of “intergenerational connectivity,” I thought it would be helpful to encounter the show with my good friend and former student, Brittany, a Brooklyn-born and -based television writer who specializes in hip hop and youth culture and is just young enough to be my daughter.
A few weeks later, we spent an afternoon in Centropy, talking through the work surrounded by the large crystals, holograms, lenticular images, and other shiny objects that Lawson had included in her installation. Brittany began by confessing to me that while she had always loved Lawson’s work when she scrolled past it on her phone, now that she was encountering the same images almost life-size, framed within wide bands of mirrored glass, the work was having a different effect. Yet it was still gratifying to see familiar spaces of Black life finally being presented in the space of one of the world’s most important museums. She pointed to “Barrington and Father” (2021) and related how the mirrored wall behind the two male figures resembled one from the 1970s in the living room of the Clinton Hill apartment that she had inherited from the grandmother who had raised her. I agreed with her about its highly satisfying nostalgia quotient, it felt familiar to me as well. I can vividly recall my own five-year-old thighs sticking painfully to the plastic slipcovers that protected the Louis XV sofas in my Nana Shaw’s tiny, subsidized apartment in blackity-black Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Still, I was concerned by the ways that Black bodies were being reproduced in other examples of Lawson’s work. And so was Brittany. She saw things in Lawson’s images that were profoundly disrespectful of certain Black aesthetics that she had spent her life honoring and appreciating. “I always straighten out my chains before I leave home,” she told me, touching the stacked ropes of gold that graced her neck as we looked at the tangled ones worn by one of Lawson’s models. This sartorial detail indicated a significant lack of self-awareness. What did this dishevelment mean in an image that was supposedly highly conceived and constructed by the artist?
“That lady there, who looks like she might be sleeping,” Brittany said, indicating “Deleon? Unknown” (2020), a piece that appeared to be a blown-up snapshot of a pregnant woman lying on a bed with a scribble of ballpoint ink across its surface. “Look at her hair. No Black woman that I know would ever let anyone take her picture with her hair sticking up like that. It’s so clear she has no idea what’s going on. What about consent?”
We wondered whether some of Lawson’s images were actually other people’s personal snapshots that had been appropriated without the subjects’ or makers’ knowledge. But we weren’t sure, since adding digital effects to provide a faux-historical patina is one tool in Lawson’s complex of methods.
And what about the subjects who were either not looking back at the camera or seemed unaware of its presence? Their numbers felt significant since the searing gazes of Lawson’s subjects are often referenced as the method by which her images subvert or challenge the violence that photography has historically imposed on the Black body. “Their stares place our focus not on their naked bodies or on the acts in which they may be engaged, but on their faces,” explains Steven Nelson in an important essay on the artist from 2018. “Lawson’s figures, aware of being seen, watch us watch them — and in doing so, our very right to look at them is called into question.”
Lawson’s “Axis” (2018), which depicts three naked women doing the splits on a shabby rug in a dingy room surrounded by painted wood paneling, is one such image where the viewer’s gaze is not defiantly returned, where our right to look is indulged rather than challenged. Taken from above, this portrait of three pierced, tattooed, and cosmetically altered female bodies posed chest-to-back against one another in an ombre arrangement that cast their melanin from light to dark, speaks of unglamorous sex work and insurmountable poverty. While I would like to agree with Tina Campt’s assertion in A Black Gaze that, “We must work to confront our resistance to seeing flawed but beautiful bodies of Black women [in Lawson’s work] who refuse to be shamed as they display themselves publicly with dignity and purpose.” I was not seeing much that was dignified in “Axis.”
These women, who could be my sisters, had been directed to line up with their genitals brushing against a dirty rug in what appeared to be a dank basement room, arranged before the photographer and her assistants, the hot lights bearing down on them as the eye of the large format camera captured their vulnerability. Only one of the women looks at the camera, and she seems barely able to meet its gaze. These women do not appear to be “doing their own thing,” and they do not exude a kind of specifically Black claim to individuality that is described by the celebrated filmmaker Arthur Jafa in a 20-minute film posted on the Guggenheim website, titled Centropy, produced by the Guggenheim with support from Lawson’s galleries, Sikkema Jenkins and David Kordansky gallery. What I saw in “Axis” was a group of working-class Black women, once more being asked to make the difficult choice to swap access to their bodies for some coin. And while it is not my place to judge what any woman chooses to do to survive, I know many women who have posed, stripped, or tricked in order to pay the bills. I am compelled to question the logic of how sex work is presented in Lawson’s images.
In “Axis” and other pieces in Centropy, I could not find any of the earned intimacy that pointed to the artist’s own personal experience or long-term communal investment in most of what she was depicting. I think of this in contrast to Nan Goldin’s 1985 “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” the brutal autobiographic ode to sex, drugs, and urban rave culture of the early ‘80s. Instead, it makes me concerned that Lawson is capitalizing on the artistic models presented by White male, sado-Marxist provocateurs like the Spanish-born Santiago Sierra, whose performance works have included paying people to engage in outrageously abject activities in the middle of a public gallery as a way to highlight the debasing processes of capitalism.
In a world where Black female bodies are continually exploited in real life, in popular and visual culture, and in fine art, I am not sure there is true willing consent in Lawson’s prurient nudes, which is why I requested they not be directly reproduced with this essay. The glossy lighting and shiny skin that structures many of these images, such as “Nicole” (2016), “Soweto Queen” (2017), or “Eternity” (2018), is about selling. Whether they are posed standing with their behinds to the camera or reclining on a piece of furniture, their formal grammar is resoundingly commercial. And while the settings in which they appear may at first be novel to some viewers in the art world, one can quite easily find remarkably similar greased-up naked bodies photographed in low-rent interiors in a spread from a Black Tail porn magazine, or on the monumentally enlarged cover of a King magazine that the white male American artist Kelley Walker has covered with jism-like smears of toothpaste. Lawson’s modus operandi seems to be following troublesome, pornotropic strategies of artistic mastery.
Is it just a difference in scale that transforms Lawson’s gallery-hung nudes into fine art rather than blow-ups of cheap paper trim that may be held in one hand? Is it a matter of price point that makes them fine art — thousands of dollars for an image by Lawson versus $75 for a vintage copy of Black Tail on Amazon? After all, what does it really change if commodified pornographic images of Black women are being made by a Black woman?
Lawson’s images, and the ways that she has discussed her process, seem to be actively reproducing the kind of big-dick energy power dynamics of White male artists who also claim mastery over their subject matter. “Someone said that I’m ruthless when it comes to what I want,” reveals Lawson. “Maybe that’s part of it: I have an image in mind that I have to make. It burns so deeply that I have to make it, and I don’t care what people are going to think.” Unfortunately, this kind of totalizing control isn’t good for anyone except Deana Lawson and the people who are making bank off it while blinding most of the art world to the consequences of this problematic artistic strategy.
A photograph Lawson made while traveling in Brazil titled, “An Ode to Yemaya” (2019), tipped me to the artist’s misunderstanding of the communities that she encountered in other parts of the African diaspora. It depicts an older woman in a blue and white patterned dress holding a little girl wearing a beaded ceremonial mask that hides her face. While the style of the child’s headdress and costume link her to the Yoruba-derived spiritual practice of Brazilian Candomblé, the golden color of the beads and the yellow of the satin bodice on the handmade dress she wears are not the colors that are traditionally associated with the orisha Yemaya, the protector of all who endured the middle passage from Africa to create the diaspora in which we Black folks now live. The costume and beads should have been blue and white if the child was being presented as Yemaya. Instead, the gold beads and yellow satin that the girl wears evoke the presence of Yemaya’s sister deity, the orisha Oshun, who is associated not only with sensual love and fertility, but also with jealously and spitefulness. If the child was the focus of the piece, Lawson wasn’t photographing Yemaya. And if the old woman in her blue and white dress was the Yemaya of Lawson’s title, then the compositional structure belied an ignorance of the representational strategies of Candomblé, failing to connect viewers with key referents.
The headdress worn by the child in Lawson’s image is there to protect the face of the god from those who should not look upon it. In Yoruba culture on the African continent, this kind of beaded headdress is also worn by the oba, or king, to protect his face from the gaze of those who are not worthy to look upon him. In, “When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.),” critic Teju Cole writes eloquently about how British colonial powers used photography as a way to control and visually subjugate the Ejebu people of Lagos, to forcefully pull back the beads from the face of the Oba. “The dominant power decided that everything had to be seen and cataloged, a task for which photography was perfectly suited … When we speak of “shooting” with a camera, we are acknowledging the kinship of photography and violence.”
In this exhibition Lawson is formulating deceptive myths of diasporic culture, ones which large segments of her audience may be ill-equipped to recognize. She was also attempting to assert her brand of visual mastery over a community whose syncretic religious practices are complicated and should be afforded respect by outsiders. As a controlling director, Lawson has adopted a specific kind of power that historically operated exclusively within dominant White male artistic culture. “When I don’t get what I want, it’s abject failure. There’s moments where I felt I had this opportunity to make a really amazing photograph that I let slide, which still haunt me to this day,” Lawson said in a 2018 conversation with Arthur Jafa before describing her feelings over having failed to take a picture of a woman that she saw in a historically maroon community in Jamaica. “But I should have photographed her. I took a picture of her from a distance, but I actually should have taken that moment to pose her against a tree and take a real picture of her, and she would have let me — I know she would have.” It matters little, I would argue, whether a Black woman or a White man is overseeing “the shoot” on a photo safari in the global South, when violent appropriation is occurring.
Why haven’t the discussions of Lawson’s work published in Hyperallergic, in the New York Times, and elsewhere been more critical of these hugely problematic aspects of her work?
When I have spoken about Lawson’s work with other Black colleagues who also teach and write about contemporary African American art and culture, we tend to commiserate about the precarity that we feel, as comfortably upper middle-class and middle-aged intellectuals in public voicing any discomfort with a young Black artist’s work (as I have just done). We worry that doing so might brand us as out of touch with the kind of lives that other Black folks live, the aesthetics they embrace. This fear to speak out is pervasive even though most of us are strivers who have roots and living relatives in what used to be called the ghetto. We all still carry a bit of this precarity, this ghetto-striving with us despite laying claim to being among the few Black folks who have persevered in unwelcoming academic environments for long enough to walk away with PhDs in art history. We come from households and communities that strongly resemble those shown in Lawson’s images. And we haven’t forgotten what it means to be a part of those worlds. None of us want to be cast as the second coming of Betye Saar trashing the next Kara Walker — particularly me. But photographs and silhouettes are not the same; the space of imagination works differently in the realm of photography.
Last spring, art historian Kobena Mercer gave a brilliant cautionary talk at the annual James A. Porter Colloquium, cosponsored by Howard University and the National Gallery of Art, about the speed with which Black images by African-born and African American artists were entering the market, moving into collections as financial investments that doubled as symbols of wokeness, but were not publicly visible long enough to be engaged critically by art historians. Mercer openly questioned whether the plethora of easily consumable images of blackness and Black people on the market is a good thing.
Sadly, engaging Lawson’s work at a critical level has not been an easy thing for scholars to do without encountering significant pushback from the artist and the forces that support her practice. Steven Nelson, the distinguished scholar of African and African American art who is now the dean of the Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, ran afoul of the Lawson promotional machine in 2018 when he was commissioned by Aperture to provide a historical context for the artist’s work. When Nelson chose to center his analysis around a group of works by the artist that had been published in Time magazine, Lawson and her representation, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, denied Nelson the right to reproduce any of her images, thus causing Aperture, and later Frieze, to decline publication. When Nelson’s essay (cited above) finally ran on Hyperallergic, it was without images and accompanied by a coda describing efforts by the artist, her representatives, and the establishment art press to bury his engagement with her work.
Since Nelson’s experience, the art press has seemed more concerned with echoing back the rhetoric that the museum and gallery complex were coauthoring to promote the artist’s work and drive high-priced sales. While I am impressed by Lawson’s ability to influence the conversations that are being had around her work, I am also concerned that some of this control is coming at the expense of both the Black people who are outside of her circle of influence as well as those whom she tries to bring within her orbit.
I suspect that most of the people who walked through Centropy while Brittany and I were there had little or no experience with Candomblé, nor was it likely that the White viewers had personal experience being on the receiving end of the kind of abject objectification that Black people, and especially Black women, experience on a daily basis, regardless of how we look, how old we are, or where we find ourselves. Many of Lawson’s pictures continue a tradition of degradation and exploitation that may not be easily recognized as problematic by those who are distanced from it by virtue of their class position or racial identity. What might Lawson’s representations of oiled up and provocatively posed Black bodies and exotically displayed diasporic religious practices mean to them? Shouldn’t these meanings be part of the conversation about her work?
A Black woman being behind the camera changes little for anyone other than the photographer if she thinks she is entitled to make whatever images she chooses. Real damage may be done if Lawson’s viewers come away thinking that they are viewing documentary images of real Black people, in their own spaces, doing “their own thing,” rather than playacting the fantasies of an artist auteur. And real damage may be done if an artist is using her own blackness as a tool of false solidarity to entice working-class Black subjects into a visual order that perpetuates the exploitation of their bodies and cultural forms. Afterall, visual colonialism is not only enacted via a white gaze. As an elder recently said to me, “Black snakes bite, too.”
What do we all have to sacrifice for Deana Lawson to get what she wants?
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