REVIEW | Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson

Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series

Art Institute of Chicago

Seeing Deana Lawson’s work in person for the first time is, I believe, what can only be described as an awakening.

In her own words, as provided as a supplement for the exhibition, Lawson both lays the groundwork for the collection, but also readies me for what it about to come: “I see my photographs as visual mythologies. Taken together, they suggest that a sacred invisible thread ties individuals and communities together, against assumptions of difference based on boundaries and distance. Working with familial strangers has always been integral to my process. I use the word ‘familial’ because many of the subjects I’ve collaborated with remind me of my own family members or the family members of someone I’ve known. I think back to one particular summer of 2005 in my hometown of Rochester, New York, when I was driving around the city in my Volvo station wagon looking for subjects to approach and photograph; I later found my subjects in Jamaica, Haiti, Ethiopia, and the DR Congo in a similar way. As a black American, I was curious about the livelihood and existence of brothers and sisters in the West Indies and Africa, and wanted to connect my subjectivity and psyche to those of people in other lands. When I began thinking about photographing in the DR Congo, I wanted to disrupt Western presumptions about the country as being a place engulfed in the ‘Heart of Darkness.’ It was the most difficult place to prepare myself for psychologically, but I realized that it was my initiation.”

In almost every way, as I read her words adjacent to The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo; I am overcome. My senses were heightened: my mouth went dry, my pupils dilated, and I swear I caught an overwhelming waft of damp soil – and I wasn’t alone. Surrounding me, I could hear a mixture of whispers of excitement, surprising gasps, uneasy laughter, and whistles of admiration. The image, like all on view, is bold, sweeping, and cinematic; conjuring significant and dueling emotions – perfectly in tune with Lawson’s own opposing conceptual pursuits about the collective psychic memory of shared experiences, via the individual and a race, each vying for genuine expression.

There is no hiding here, but rather authentic, proud, confident subjects, many are women, looking directly into the camera and selectively displaying their bodies (sometimes nude and sometimes clothed); always earnest and sincere. Lawson’s posed portraits, such as Joanette, Canarsie, Brooklyn (pictured at top), or Nikki’s Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan (pictured left) are among my favorites. Here Lawson richly investigates the visual expression of global black culture and how individuals claim and project their identities within it, leading to images ripe with history, sexuality, and implication. The juxtaposition of this attractive woman in a leopard jumpsuit with perfectly coifed hair and athletic socks seductively posing on a chair in the center of a dilapidated room conjures a variety of storylines: myths, truths, and lies surely among them.

The final image of the exhibition, titled As Above, So Below, Port-au-Prince, is inescapable – a haunting, blood-soaked portrait that has remained with me, whether I would like for it to or not. The intensity of the overwhelming blue is only slightly stifled by streams of blood running down the woman’s face, echoed in the decorate stripes that adorn her dress. The physicality of the pose, perfectly situated between the diminishing lines of the stairs on the left, the staccato windows above, and the gritty, carved yellow lines on the right; bolsters the strength of her expression. Her gesture and features mirror the sacrificed carcass that adorns her head, equally distant in its gaze. It simultaneously repels and attracts, becoming more palatable as I find the unexpected commonalities among the foreignness.

Deana Lawson, the first installment of the biennial Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series, is open now through January 10 at the Art Institute of Chicago, located at 111 S Michigan Avenue, Chicago. For more, visit:

For more about the artist, visit: or

All images © Deana Lawson and Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago (from top to bottom): Joanette, Canarsie, Brooklyn, 2013, pigment print, 42 x 52 inches, print / 43.5 x 35.5 inches, framed; The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo, 2014, pigment print; Nikki’s Kitchen, Detroit, Michigan, 2015, pigment print; As Above, So Below, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2013, pigment print, 43 x 35.75 inches framed

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