interview by JÉRÔME SANS
artwork by DEANA LAWSON
american artist deana lawson immerses herself with her large-format camera in local communities and private lives, without intruding. she pays careful attention to lighting, poses, and visual compositions, revealing intimacy, romance, and sexuality as they are rarely seen.
JÉRÔME SANS — Is love central to your work?
DEANA LAWSON — Love is everything. Love is shown through the gaze: my own gaze and also the returned gaze of the subject. It’s also about introducing different representations of love. Some are familiar, and others are more uncomfortable or even darker than our ideas of what love is. Love is also power and change. It is light, literally, due to the fact that photography uses light to create images.
JÉRÔME SANS — Do you think that sexuality has been considered for a long time as separate or different from love?
DEANA LAWSON — I believe love is very difficult. It’s not fluffy and glossy. But love is beautiful in its own strange and awesome way. Love defies boundaries. Love embodies revolution, power, and change. To me, that’s what the erotic is. The term “sexuality” is a little bit flat for me. The photograph is about positing another idea of love and also of beauty.
JÉRÔME SANS — In one of your iconic works, The Garden, a naked couple is captured in an Eden-like setting, where time seems to stand still. Their posture reminds us of the couple represented in Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Is this your own vision of paradise?
DEANA LAWSON — Yes, The Garden is my vision of paradise in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the heart of the African continent. The story of Eden is envisioned through the Black body, the ultimate ancestor of all humanity. It’s a story of primordial love and innocence, before the fall of humankind. The fall is a stand-in for the European invasion and colonialism. The aim was to imagine romance and a time before this downfall.
JÉRÔME SANS — Nudity features a lot in your work. Why?
DEANA LAWSON — The word “naked” isn’t relevant here — “erotic” is more fitting for the individuals seen in states of dress and undress in my work. “Erotic” takes on a different tone and gravitas. The writer and feminist Audre Lorde described the inherent generative power of the erotic. In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, she writes: “The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling.” This plane of the erotic is what drives the creative choices of dress and undress, always recognizing the generosity of the individuals in the pictures.
JÉRÔME SANS — It’s often a body in dialogue. There are often two people next to each other or touching each other.
DEANA LAWSON — Yes, it’s true. In Greased Scalp, there’s a mother and daughter. The daughter is completely nude. The mother is wearing a deep purple robe with beautiful purple high-heel shoes. The daughter is having her hair done, and the mother is greasing her scalp. In my own family, when I was younger, I used to scratch and grease my mother’s and aunts’ scalps. In fact, I remember my Aunt Shelley saying how good I was at scratching her scalp. I must have been around seven or eight years old at the time, and I took great pride in my aunt’s acknowledgement. I now see these personal experiences of doing one’s hair or having my hair done, especially by family in the home, as a ritual of grooming that is unique to Black culture. It’s a different sort of intimacy and relationality. And I wanted to do justice to this ritual in a photograph.
JÉRÔME SANS — In another picture, Axis, there are three women next to each other, naked, not on the floor, but on a rug.
DEANA LAWSON — The definition of “axis” is an imaginary line on which a body rotates. The photograph of Axis hovers between spaces: the present space that we view in the picture and another potential space. The women are all in the process of doing a split, a very strenuous pose. They are arranged in order of their complexion, from light brown and medium brown to a deeper brown, which fades to shadow. I visualized skin tones like the sound of piano keys when you play notes: do, re, mi. That’s what I was thinking about with Axis. They are so close that they are touching. They are a unit, a force, when posed together.
JÉRÔME SANS — How do you consider the power of the body in general?
DEANA LAWSON — The power of the flesh is that it houses the spirit. The skin protects us. The body carries the memory of our ancestors and the DNA of our futures.
JEROME SANS — Could we consider your whole work as a huge family portrait of the Black diaspora in the US?
DEANA LAWSON — Yes. The separation of families and loved ones that occurred during the transatlantic slave trade will never be forgotten. My journeys to DR Congo, Ghana, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, and beyond, and the pictures that resulted from those trips, visualize a unification of power for global Black bodies.
JÉRÔME SANS — What I like a lot in your work is that it looks staged at first, but in the end, it looks very real.
DEANA LAWSON — It looks real because it is real. I’m thinking of the artist Thomas Demand and his thoughts on truth and truthfulness in the telling of a story. He says, “When an author writes about his childhood, he omits or adds things, and the value of his literature does not depend on whether he remembers the names of all the aunts, but on whether he communicates something to me, whether I understand what he says, and whether I feel his version of his childhood is authentic or not.”
JÉRÔME SANS — How do you see the future of love?
DEANA LAWSON — I see the future of love as a political and spiritual evolution. There’s a collective consciousness at play. For the first time, we could actually shift the injustices of mass incarceration and its connection to police violence against Black and Brown global communities. Land and food justice is also a priority. Awakenings are occurring, and people are putting in the hard and sustained efforts needed for Black liberation. This is love.