Hailed as one of the first major shows by the American photographer in Europe, the exhibition ‘Deana Lawson’ at Huis Marseille spans five floors. Large-scale portraits are sparsely hung throughout lofty rooms with white panelling, accompanied by unframed snapshots and Polaroids. The latter are stuck into the portrait’s frames while the former cluster into corners like living organisms; a sprawling archive of intimate yet anonymous faces.
Deana Lawson’s practice “concentrates on black bodies located in the diaspora” as a way of locating “what could be defined as a black universal experience”. Her characters are often strangers, yet are described by the artist as her family. They pose within carefully crafted domestic scenes, sitting within what can be called a collage of personal and communal life. With this manner of staging, Lawson weaves together black cultural symbolism, personal stories, and historical references in a manner reminiscent of classic iconography painting. The Polaroids and snapshots are another dimension of this method of collaging: performing a similar effect in real-time while arguing that no subject exists in isolation.
Much emphasis is placed on the relation between Huis Marseille’s period aesthetics and Lawson’s reputation for blending art historical formalism and iconography with the contemporary, acutely real lives of her subjects. More importantly, however, Lawson manages to merge her methodology with a critical awareness of location. It is important to know that Huis Marseille was originally a merchant residence, built around 1655. Its original layout and period features are left largely intact, creating an atmosphere that still echoes white elitism. It is also important to realise that the 17th century, commonly referred to in the Netherlands as the Golden Age, was a period of abundant trade for the Dutch; trade in spices, fabrics and slaves. The Amsterdam-based Dutch West Trading Company, responsible for ferrying over half a million slaves between Africa and America between 1621 and 1803, would have been operating in proximity to the Marseille residence.
Similar to how she uses the Polaroids to layer information and draw her subjects out of the distance that inevitably comes with formalism, Lawson places her photographs on top of the historical past of the museum itself. Not only are her portraits a celebration of black subjectivity in the United States, but they expose the narrative of black displacement and racial violence that the Netherlands have yet to fully reckon with. Her subjects not only return the gaze, but expand beyond the frame as though resisting thematisation.