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“I photograph family, friends, and strangers, and I operate on the belief that my own being is found in union with those I take pictures of.” -Deana Lawson

In Deana Lawson’s photography exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, she explores intimacy, sexuality, spirituality, and what it means to be not only Black, but human. This exhibition was the first museum survey dedicated to the artist herself, and featured work from 2004 to present. Lawson has been a singular force in contemporary art as photography or vice versa, and has been one of the leading artistic lights shed on the Black experience and aesthetic as it pertains to interconnectedness and humanity.

This exhibition featured photographic prints, as well as aesthetic photo collages, crystals, a short film, and other artifacts significant to Lawson’s overall theme. Her photos were far from the concept of street photography as we know it; since the early 1900’s photographers have been walking around waiting for a happenstance moment to capture with random subjects, and we equate this concept with that facet of photography. Lawson, however, has honed in on her concept so much so that while she does pick mostly random subjects, she doesn’t make them or wait for them to do random things. There is an overwhelming sense of posedness, as if her subjects are wrapped in a layer of conceptual cellophane. Looking at her portraits of nude Black women in vulnerable yet uniquely feminine positions, you feel as though you are looking at a modern reclamation of Manet’s Olympia. There is inexplicable power in the female form, no matter how superficially “degrading” some of the positions she put women in to photograph. The viewer’s interpretation of these poses is a direct reflection of them, not of Lawson or the woman she photographed. One of Lawson’s main themes is this reclamation of humanity, of femininity for the Black woman, and the power of a singular yet communal existence outside of others’ perceptions. Lawson’s work is a perfect example of the prevailing Black aesthetic in America, and how it has developed beyond its original forms.

Her use of crystals as not only a subject of but as an actual piece of her art throughout speaks to this idea. Lawson chose to highlight Black families as well as just women, documenting what it can look like to grow up Black. One of the main themes I was struck by was this sense of community, of shared experience, shared joy and shared sadness, among all people, but namely the Black community. She chose to photograph many of her subjects in their homes, showing them in their own personal space, but for her more intimate shots between lovers, she chose to photograph them among nature. Her whole exhibit serves to demonstrate the palpable energy that connects us all despite any physical difference we may perceive. The crystals were set in corners basking in light positioned between two photographs. I took this to symbolize that imperceptible energy, a way to visualize our interconnectedness despite the physical. While she highlights and focuses on the Black experience, her broad message is more than that: human experience is unique and individual yet simultaneously shared between every living thing. You walk away from this exhibition feeling an awakening of energy, feeling that you remembered something you already knew. It elicits deeply in me the one of Plato’s ideas about pre-existence, that all learning is remembering because the soul is born in the world of ideas. Therefore, all you learn is something that you always knew, something that you always will know, even if your soul must forget and learn again until eternity.

Mama Gomma, Gemena, DR Congo 2014

For me, this exhibition specifically made me feel much more confident in the exploration of the feminine and all that it encompasses. At times, I feel an unexplainable connection to the female form, a need to explore it, to showcase it, but that can be perceived culturally as an exploitation or degradation because of our cultural values. This reinforced in me the validity in that exploration, and that photography that exposes the female body can do so for reasons beyond male desire. There is artistic truth in our bodies, both male and female, and that exploration brings us closer to Lawson’s idea of interconnectedness. Some pieces that I felt most connected to were ones that exemplified this idea, specifically the one with a pregnant Black woman standing with her stomach exposed in a beautiful blue dress, her palms facing towards the sky, her eyes piercing the camera. This picture to me symbolizes the unstoppable flow of life and death, being birthed and then giving birth, letting your body be a vessel for something sacred. She stands in this photo like a statue, like an ancient illustration of a goddess, acting as a modern mother Mary in my opinion. I thought this was one of her most poignant pieces.

While this exhibit is one of the best examples of the Black aesthetic that exists modernly, I don’t think she has chosen to pigeon-hole herself into that artistic space. This is a showcase of humanity, and because it focused on Black imagery and experience, it is therein further legitimizing and artistically validating the Black existence as it relates to common humanity. Furthermore, the subliminal message I took away from Lawson is that in a way, her work’s aesthetic classification and outreach doesn’t really matter. People will come to their own conclusions about her work, no matter her intention. And, this relates to Lawson’s overall message: my individual feelings about this exhibition or anything for that matter exist within a collective and peaceful consciousness; even if our physical experiences render us to have different opinions about this specific subject, there is greater peace beyond these opinions. These photos exist and they permeate in the ether just as we do, and they are physical extensions of a feeling that we all on some level share. This message, what I took away from this, will continue to inform my ideas and opinions about all art as well as life. As demonstrated by Lawson, they are and will always be the same thing.


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