Deana Lawson (b.1979) is an American artist, based in New York, who travels internationally to create snapshots of everyday Black life. She celebrates the community, beauty and spirituality of Black bodies and relationships through the staging of photographs that always feel distinctly familial. Her work has been exhibited in a number of major museums and galleries, and she was the first photographer to win the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss prize in 2020.
Deana has cited her own family albums as a major influence on her work, and despite often working in unfamiliar environments with strangers, she embraces the wider theme of family through Black unity as a way to elevate the people she meets. She depicts recognizable environments using cultural markers she feels close to; photographs such as Binky and Tony Forever (2009), taken in her actual home in Brooklyn; Coulson Family (2008); and Communion (2017) are strong examples of this. Despite the personal connotations of the family album format, Deana’s work is by no means limited to her own experiences. Known for her celebration of a range of Black cultures and aesthetics, Deana toes the line between community representation and self-interpretation; she situates herself in relation to viewers of the work, finding closeness to them despite never entering the photographic frame. Her work questions who she is in relation to others, and how she can find connections – as a Black woman, and as a spiritual being.
Although personal, Deana’s photographs never feel mundane; there is a grandness about her compositions, a beauty and symmetry which alludes to mythology in celebration of the divinity of her sitters. The images point directly to the lack of Black representation in the historical oil paintings they echo, but subvert these works by creating an environment which feels warmer. Deana imbues the images with her own sense of spirituality; The Garden (2015), As Above so Below (2013) and Mama Goma(2014) strongly connote her sitter’s interior Godliness. Deana has said that she tends to photograph “people around the neighbourhood”, often “people that come from a lower or working-class situation”. The photographs are often taken in apartments, featuring symbols of working class domesticity. Deana finds the beauty in these everyday interiors; this comes forth in photographs such as Living Room (2014) and Hotel Olofsson Storage Room (2015). Her meticulous mise-en-scenes elevate these settings and individuals, highlighting the truth she sees buried beneath unjust opportunity: there is divine beauty in every human being.
By Madalena Botto