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Deana Lawson (1979, Rochester, NY, USA) produces portraits of contemporary Black life that are meticulously staged yet profoundly intimate. Deana Lawson’s solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel (Switzerland) – which was postponed due to the social distancing measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic – takes place between 9 June and 11 October 2020. Centropy, the first presentation in Switzerland and the largest institutional exhibition of her work to date, is one of the 34th Bienal de São Paulo‘s international collaborations.

For the Bienal, Lawson was invited to add another city to the already long list of places she has visited and photographed: Salvador, Bahia, one of the regions in Brazil where the presence of African rites, culture and music is more present. In a strongly authorial way, Lawson’s photographs, which frequently expand toward the theatrical and feature ritualistic objects or props, synthetize a historical, tragic but also fertilizing process of displacements and creolization, which in the context of the 34th Bienal is particularly significant –a historical context discussed at length in the writings of Édouard Glissant, one of the main literary and philosophical references of the exhibition.

Deana Lawson, Grace with woman, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Sensitive to the stereotypes in Western, African and afro-descendant portraiture, Lawson predominantly explores topics such as physicality, identity, gender and family in a practice that is grounded in thorough research on blackness and representativeness. Mostly produced in domestic indoor spaces, these photographs are endowed with an ambiguous atmosphere, between the voyeuristic, the theatrical, the ethnographic and the activist, without being completely subsumed by one of these possible interpretations.

As in so much of Lawson’s portraiture, Blackness is an identity that is neither monolithic nor can it be understood apart from the passage, flight, and migration forced by a dominant white system that has dispersed people of color across the globe. Her photographic work constitutes a unique, idiosyncratic and overwhelming portrait of the habits, lifestyles and rhizomatic cultural references of the African diaspora in her native US and around the world.

Her photographs are meticulously staged, yet profoundly intimate images, often based on drawings and sketches that she realizes before the actual shooting session. This careful preparation process, though, doesn’t lead to a predictable outcome, since a large part of the photographs are taken in domestic interiors where Lawson is entering for the first time, thus creating a feeling which is both slightly uncanny and voyeuristic.

Deana Lawson, Nikkis Kitchen, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Deana Lawson, Vera with Lateral Puncture, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

The title of the exhibition, Centropy, the opposite of entropy, describes the electrification of matter that leads to creative renewal and order. Centropy resonates in peculiar ways in our present moment. If entropy speaks of the way things dissolve into chaos, centropy describes the opposite, the electrification of matter that leads to creative renewal and order. As this exhibition is being installed and is opening to the public, cities across the USA are ablaze with anger and indignation that yet another Black life was lost (after count-less others) at the hands of the very people and systems supposed to serve and protect them.

The exhibition comes, moreover, in the midst of a global pandemic that dis – proportionately affects those whose race, class, or sexuality already puts them at a disadvantage and exposes them, once more, to a higher health and economic risk. In times like our own, Centropy’s message is all the more urgent. Indeed, especially at a moment when the vulnerability of the com-munities Lawson photographs is so tragically visible, her dignified and resplendent representations of Black lives urge us to not look away.

Deana Lawson, Nation, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York


Kunsthalle Basel, Steinenberg 7, Basel, Switzerland


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