Centropy, by Deana Lawson : portraying the african diaspora.

July 11, 2020 | Julie A.

For the first time in Switzerland, people can discover the beautiful work of Deana Lawson, who's portraying black peoples and communities around the world in her so particular style. The exhibition entitled Centropy, present some of her last artworks, including photograph, movie, installations and holograms.

But what is Centropy ? There's no clear definition about the term, and it sounds more as a neologism built on the word and concept of entropy. If entropy design the degree of disorder in a system, centropy could be understood as his antonym, used to talk about the way elements in a system can be led to work together.

This idea makes sense when you discover the work of Deana Lawson. By exploring borders, the photograph reveals the potential of unity that exists beyond them. From Brazil to Brooklyn, she goes beyond established and visible frontiers, to making new links between people from black African diaspora. Beyond the burst of this people and their nation through History, Deana Lawson gives attention to the persistence of unity, as an invisible and delicate web that grows beside the organized systems that run the world.

Thus, numbers of elements create a feeling of unity, beyond all the differences that can exist between people and families. This unity, or we might say continuity, is surely the particular style of the artist : here again, it's a subtitle dance between document the daily life of her subjects, and the artificiality of the setting, the work of lights, frame, and pose, which transform the background into a grid of symbols, as the Renaissance European painting. All of these points give to the work of Lawson a very recognizable style.

Printed in very big formats, sometimes on mirror, and added by hologram and projection, photographs give us the feeling that people in the room stand in front of us, stare at us, that they are more closer than we think. But, at the same time, all the work around this figures (chiseled glass frames, worked lights, holograms...) made them a bit out of our reality, like we are in front of a stranger god and goddess, mythical figures, kings and queens from a far away world.

Deana Lawson, Chief 2019 | courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US

Moreover, places share some strong common points : closed curtains, walls often empty except for a little picture, as the tapestry of « The Last Supper », which contrast and give a touch of luxury, a will to personalize the places, to make it more than just a functional place. In contrast, we can notice a lot of details as piles of clothes on the couch, children toys, taped elements as windows... all trivial details that bring a new level of significance, both political and sociological. And even if it's not the point for the artist, that reveal a lot about the social condition of his subject.

Deana Lawson ,Vera 2020 | courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US

But beyond these common points, and the sociological aspect that can carry, Deana Lawson is looking for the “creative, godlike beings” that exist beyond the social condition, and making their subjects real individuals. And that's a bigger deal than we can think. As white European, we can learn a lot about ourselves from art history and representation. From the only religious and mythical representations, to the modernity and the documentation of « real » people, we came closer to the reality of the body. The exclusion of non-white people from this art history can be explained by historical, political, and geographical context. That's a point. But how understand the fact that nowadays, these people continue to be excluded from representation ?

Moreover, it is not just a deal about representation, and the place that can be allowed to non-white people. It's not about making more Black people embodied super-heroes in Hollywood. Mainstream representations of black bodies exist, by the way, but they obey too much often to some very restrained frames. We can talk about the exotic fetishization / eroticization of the woman's body. The misery-porn of the photographs that keep up showing little hungry kids, or the ways of showing black male bodies, keeping alive the myth of the violent man, powerful, muscled, strong as depicted by a lot of intellectuals, from Frantz Fanon to Paul Gilroy.

Hollywood and big companies can bring to light more “diversity” in their ads or their movies. But, as queer people, female people, trans-people, people of colors, it need more than just another manufactured and standardized representation of heroes. That is what the work of Deana Lawson is as important. As Nan Goldin did in her time for marginalized communities she lives with, Deana Lawson gives to her subject a strong individuality, far away from the common cliche. Even when they play and pose, we can find in their gaze a feeling of uniqueness, and feeling both an empathy for another human body, and the kind of respect for a stranger, unknown person, that we can't easily set in a box just in a look.

Deana Lawson, Axis 2018, | courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, US

Thus, in her way, Deana Lawson reverses the eurocentric gaze we can have. Who's looking at each other in this context ? The strong look all their subjects address to us canceled, paradoxically, the representation mechanism that make all of us labeled a person in a look, enclosed them in a frame, as a picture and projections of stereotypes (and that's what we all do for everybody we can meet in our life, that's the power of imaginary and representation). They are « just » people. People that carry a story, as global as personal. People that can be king, and queens, gods and goddess, but also dad, and mom. Man. Or woman. Young people that haven't decided yet what they want to be in the future.

In an interview with Angela Davis, the activist tells a story about the first Black Live Matter movement. To a politician, or a journalist, who wanted to meet their leader, a member of the movement answers by this beautiful and simple sentence : they didn't have any leader. They were all the leaders. And this part of human history, often relegated to the backseat, shows us that being « just » part of the people can be far more powerful than we can imagine.

9.6. – 11.10.2020
Kunsthalle Basel

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