Open Forum Deana Lawson's Photographs Explore Race and Identity

By Thomas, M. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 28, 2018 | Go to article overview

Open Forum Deana Lawson's Photographs Explore Race and Identity


Thomas, M., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


When Carnegie Museum of Art opened the Forum gallery as a showcase for contemporary art, the choice of name was not incidental. "Deana Lawson," the 80th exhibition in the 25-year-old space, exemplifies the mix of aesthetics, relevancy and critique the museum seeks to generate engagement and discussion.

The Forum was conceived as "a platform for conversation," said Dan Leers, museum curator of photography. Visitors are encouraged to experience and respond to the work. "That dialogue is critical."

The open-endedness of the narrative of the exhibited photographs and the non-airbrushed nature of their subjects has fueled some controversy over whether they are appropriate to exhibit in a museum. Mr. Leers said the museum's staff "anticipated a variety of responses."

"There's humanity in the portraits, and that's significant," he stressed.

Ms. Lawson, a Brooklyn-based African-American photographer, makes "incredibly powerful portraits of African-Americans and the African diaspora that reveal the complexity of stories of race and identity in America and abroad," he said. The 10 photographs are printed in the largest size the artist has to date employed.

In "Barbara and Mother," the daughter leans fondly into her mother as she lifts her dress to reveal a prosthetic leg. "There's a deep affection there," Mr. Leers said.

Ms. Lawson told Mr. Leers that she was attracted to the tonality of the different materials used to make the prosthetic. African-Americans are often called black, but that's not the skin color of most people referred to in that way.

While the images appear as almost casual snapshots of middle-class life, they are actually staged scenes that are highly posed, highly organized and managed, Mr. Leers said. "They are directorial, but at the same time they are a collaboration."

A "Woman With Child" sits on a sofa holding a crying baby, but it isn't her own. Her child stands on the left side of the image. Ms. Lawson asked the woman to put on different clothing, Mr. Leers said. But the woman refused, saying she liked what she was wearing. "Deana respected her wishes. She likes when sitters push back."

Ms. Lawson was born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1979, and some family members worked at Eastman Kodak. …

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