Zadie Smith on the Work and Influences of Deana Lawson

"Woman with Child," 2017. (Courtesy the Carnegie Museum of Art)

I’ve heard a lot of talk about geniuses lately, vis-a-vis the kind of music and films that are released in mainstream outlets and become pop culture. Even though we don’t enjoy network television the same way we did a few decades ago — all together at primetime, then in conversations at school or work the next morning — we now find our tribes on the internet, where we can absorb and discuss key cultural events as they unfold. It’s messy, this instant absorbing and convening. Sometimes it’s a lot to manage, and I always feel more mentally agile when I disconnect for a while and let everybody else prattle on. All in all, it’s great that we’re speaking to one another and thinking through how what we consume matters.

When Donald Glover’s video for his single “This is America,” premiered on the May 5 episode of Saturday Night Live, the internet was set ablaze. I watched both the video and the chatter and understood the excitement. It’s a provocative and beautifully shot music video, fantastical and well-performed, the kind of collage work that relies on the familiarity of its many parts to keep you entranced. We were talking about race and racism and the dizzying confusion of trauma and gun violence a lot already, right? Donald Glover is an exciting and intriguing pop culture figure who’s great at seizing a moment. But sometimes when I really need to be engaged about the complicated possibilities of blackness — or experience art as a moment of revelation — pop culture can feel flat.

For the New Yorker, Zadie Smith profiles another talented, young black creator making complicated and beautiful art: Rochester-born photographer Deana Lawson, who for the past decade has made a body of work that feels like a search for the black fantastic—the sublime, the sacred, or all of the above. Smith says that Lawson’s portraits look at their largely working class “regular people” subjects “before the fall”: suspended in time and space before the calamity of colonialism and systemized anti-blackness, while somehow, still keeping a record of its collateral damage. She places Lawson in context with other culture workers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, who have, through their own practices, searched for commonalities among people with African ancestry around the world. Smith’s writing about Lawson is as full of ideas as the work it theorizes, and is excerpted from the artist’s monograph that will come out in September.

Examining Deana Lawson’s “Sharon” (2007), a black viewer may find the confusion of her earliest days reënacted. Before you’d heard of slavery and colonialism, of capitalism and subjection, of islands and mainlands, of cities and ghettos, when all you had to orient yourself was what was visually available to you; that is, what was in front of your eyes. And what a strange sight confronts the black child! The world seems upside down and back to front. For your own eyes tell you that your people, like all people, are marvellous. That they are — like all human beings — beautiful, creative, godlike. Yet, as a child, you couldn’t find many of your gods on the television or in books; they were rarely rendered in oil, encountered on the cinema screen or in the pages of your children’s Bible. Sometimes, in old reruns, you might spot people painted up, supposedly to look like your gods — with their skin blackened and their lips huge and red — but the wise black child pushed such toxic, secondary images to the back of her mind. Instead, she placed her trust in reality. But here, too, she found her gods walking the neighborhood unnoticed and unworshipped. Many of them appeared to occupy lowly positions on a ladder whose existence she was only just beginning to discern. There were, for example, many low-wage gods behind the counters at the fast-food joints, and mostly gods seemed to shine shoes and clean floors, and too many menial tasks altogether appeared to fall only to them. Passing the newsstand, she might receive her first discomforting glimpse of the fact that the jail cells were disproportionately filled with gods, while in the corridors of power they rarely set a foot. Only every now and then did something make sense: a god was recognized. There’s little Michael Jackson and grand Toni Morrison, and, look, that’s James Baldwin growing old in France, and beautiful Carl Lewis, faster than Hermes himself. The kinds of gods so great even the blind can see them. But back at street level? Too many gods barely getting by, or crowded into substandard schools and crumbling high-rise towers, or harassed by police intent on clearing Olympus of every deity we have. And, for a long, innocent moment, everything about this arrangement will seem surreal to the black child, distorted, like a message that has somehow been garbled in the delivery. Then language arrives, and with language history, and with history the Fall.

Deana Lawson’s work is prelapsarian — it comes before the Fall. Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look: Brownsville, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa. Typically, she photographs her subjects semi-nude or naked, and in cramped domestic spaces, yet they rarely look either vulnerable or confined. (“When I’m going out to make work,” Lawson has said, “usually I’m choosing people that come from a lower- or working-class situation. Like, I’m choosing people around the neighborhood.”) Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.

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