Last summer, when Dev Hynes dropped Freetown Sound, his third studio album as Blood Orange, he chose for the album's cover a photograph of a young black couple in love. Dressed neatly in a spread of yellowish-green, arms wrapped tightly around his woman, a young man sat on a bed, peering directly into the camera in the large-format interior scene. "Binky & Tony Forever," as the photograph is titled, was staged in 2009 by the photographer Deana Lawson in her own bedroom. In real life, Binky and Tony are friends, not lovers, but the point of the highly stylized picture is that it depicts to see black love, so infrequently represented, as young, feminine, and free.
Visualizing unseen blackness is a theme that runs throughout Lawson's photography oeuvre. Lawson has traveled the world creating images of black people living in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jamaica, Ethiopia, the southern United States, and her neighborhood of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. In Deana Lawson, a new solo exhibition of photographs at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, it becomes clear that, although the 36-year-old artist's pictures are mostly taken in far-flung places of perfect black strangers, they're all working against popular cultural clichés. It is as if Lawson is the composer of an intimate family photo album that images the vivid and significant interior details of a contemporary black universe.
The highly-staged photographs feel like Lawson, who will show new works in this year's Whitney Biennial, begins with an idea. For "Kingdom Come," taken in 2015 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it could have been an image of lineage and tradition. "Otisha," taken in Kingston, Jamaica, tells a different story, one of a blackness that subverts classical notions of beauty-as-object only to be worn by whiteness. Using the reclining Venus as an inspiration, Lawson constructs, from blackness, her own definition, critiquing the narrow aesthetic monopolies whiteness has had on the body, sexuality, and the canon of portraiture. Her figure resists reclining, using the living room's white couch to rest asymmetrically by pushing herself up. The lower half of the figure's body is angled off the couch, communicating a break in the positioning of black beauty, femininity, and power.
Deana Lawson shows how the photographer works across a variety of photographic traditions to capture black aesthetics around the world. The exhibition features "Emily and Daughter" and "Khadafi," two appropriated images the artist printed in 2015. The former shows a mother's love, while the latter, a freshly-dressed black male posing on top of a car. Both represent expressions of identity that are rarely rendered without filters in public and pop culture fantasies. "Khadafi" emits a black cool that is often mediated by whites through modes of consumption including record labels, magazines, and television shows. The images also offer the context in which Lawson is working. She isn't so much creating new representations of blackness as she is adding new iconography to a tradition that has long existed within the global African diaspora.
Taken worlds apart, "Living Room," "Oath," and "Mickey & Friends," all show couples embracing in various stages of dress and life. Their skin-to-skin contact communicates that familiarity, sameness, and intimacy exist across all black cultures, no matter where Lawson's photographs are taken.
Deana Lawson continues through April 16 at the Contemporary Museum St. Louis. For more information, click here.