by Scott Ferguson
We owe others our language, our history, our art, our survival, our neighborhood, our relationships, … our ability to defy social conventions as well as support these conventions. All of this we learn from others. None of us is alone; each of us is dependent on others.
The challenge was to make the unseen–the abstract–seen, in a way.
In nearly all of her now widely-hailed large format prints, artist Deana Lawson flexes photography’s stubborn techno-social facticity in order to, as she puts it, “represent an entity beyond what is actually present.” Photography, here, operates not as a primarily deictic or indexical medium, as many would have it. It does not directly or, at least, exclusively index an immanent circuit from referent to apparatus, picture to the out-of-frame. Instead, it constitutes what Lawson construes as a “vehicle,” an “altar,” and also a “portal,” which defies oppositions between proximity and distance that underwrite modern Western conceptions of light, space, and locomotion. Part social documentary, part stylized portraiture, Lawson’s work saturates the photographic process in a “mythical,” “surreal,” and even “divine” inheritance. In contradistinction to notions of the spiritual as either super-added to or exceeding a bounded reality, then, Lawson foregrounds transcendence as a primary domain of mediation, one that encircles momentary comings and goings in nested layers of abstraction.
Seemingly far afield from heterodox economics, Lawson’s aesthetic intervention, on my reading, has a lot to teach left Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) about decolonial politics.
Consider, for instance, Lawson’s “Portal” (2017), in which an enigmatic tear in a hotly lit brown leather sofa takes the iconic shape of the African continent. Rough and tattered, the seemingly bottomless icon renders Africa a distant presence. The result opens the photo’s punctual inscription in Rochester, New York–the birthplace of Lawson, the Eastman Kodak Company, and a certain American photographic vernacular—to the very real and rich realm of Black diasporic history and legend.
The icon’s obscure depth has little to do with European perspectivalism and the infinite extensionality conjured by the camera obscura’s contracted vanishing point. Undermining this white patriarchal visuality, the iconic tear betokens a mysterious coincidence of near and far, now and then which, on Zadie Smith’s reading of Lawson’s work, discloses a passage “between the everyday and the sacred, between our finite lives and our long cultural and racial histories.”
Tucked inexplicably behind and to the left of the photo’s mystical seat one glimpses a colorful drawing of a pink lily. According to Greek and Roman myth, the pink lily is a figure of feminine admiration, maternity, and nurture, associated above all with Hera, or Juno, queen of the gods. In a sense, the lily’s feminine majesty stands in for Lawson’s fierce and strikingly adorned Black men and women. Photographed in such disparate locales as Brooklyn, Port-au-Prince, and Gena, figures like “Sharon” (2007) pose as gods or royals in cramped and frequently run-down domestic spaces. Often leaning upon sundry chairs and couches, Dawson’s women in particular stare unflinchingly at lens, spectator, and world. Thus as one finds in the works of Simone Leigh, Dawoud Bey, and other contemporary artists, Lawson’s photographs explore the repressed powers of what bell hooks has famously termed the Black “oppositional gaze.”
In another sense, however, the pink lily in Lawson’s “Portal” simultaneously speaks to a distinctly European feminine mythology. The racial and colonial implications of this distinction are then further reinforced by the picture’s surrounding surface, which is conspicuously white in contrast to the darkness that frames the coffee-colored sofa. The color contrast distances the lily’s femininity from Lawson’s Black divinities along racial lines at the same time as it invites convergence along the axis of gender. More complicated still is yet another gendered convergence in “Portal.” I refer to the fact that both the dark Africa-shaped tear and the pink European lily are similarly vaginal forms. More significant, the picture of the lily appears to be just as worn and soiled as the visibly aged dark sofa in which it is lodged. As a consequence, Lawson’s photograph stresses the misogynistic brutality that cuts through Euro-African history, implying both acute injuries and slow violence over time. Tying such entanglements to questions of African-American beauty through entwined legacies of picture making, Lawson’s photo thus calls forth a common, if disastrously asymmetrical, history of racialized and gendered subjugation and systemic disregard.
Significantly, though, Lawson’s photography never reifies the crushing enclosure or isolation often associated with Black experience. One recalls the hellish Middle Passage marked by the overcrowded and alienating hold of the slave ship and the deadly chokehold of racist cops who regularly terrorize American streets. For scholar and poet Fred Moten, fantasy in the hold places Blackness in the “constant autodisclocation” of “nowhere,” trapped between the immediacy of touch and the propinquity of a transcendence “understood as immanence’s fugitive impurity.” For Lawson, however, remote mediation necessarily transcends attempts to contract being’s wide berth to a brute here and now. Abjection, for this reason, can never be absolute. And both the pains and splendors of Blackness issue from what from Lawson envisions as a fundamentally centripetal, rather than essentially fugitive ontology. Eschewing a reductive immanence that would externalize relationality, Lawson’s pictorial practice approaches Black experience not as immediate improvisations or inevitable disintegrations but as a variously shimmering and laden center, signified by turns as “Black diaspora,” “Mother Africa” and, as the artist once characterized it, an “ever-expanding mythological extended family.”
Hence the title of Lawson’s latest award-winning show, Centropy, a para-scientific concept associated with thermodynamics. In opposition to entropy and its dissipative logics of heat death and drive toward equilibrium, centropy, like its better known synonym “negentropy,” names a centralizing tendency toward life and coordination within diversity. Through Lawson’s myriad photographic arrangements, centropy both subtends and exceeds disorder and decay. Flying in the face of the modern West’s morbid investments in “being-towards-death,” such arrangements reckon with ongoing historical traumas and unmet needs by radiating the hidden magnificence of a shared though habitually unrecognized interdependence.
For this reason, Lawson’s photography goes further than merely registering and redeeming worldly injustice in syncopated extremes. To the contrary, Lawson’s work asserts a defiant counter-ontology, which affirms the enduring dignity of a vast interdependence in order to redeem the meaning of redemption as such from Western modernity’s expulsive metaphysics. Redemption, in this mode, does not take exclusion at its word. It does not rescue being from utter dehumanization. Rather, it refuses dehumanization’s claims on Blackness by illuminating centropy’s fraught yet inalienable radiance.
We discover radiance in the round torus hologram that hovers in middle of the Centropy exhibition, along with the crystal-encrusted mirrors that frame many of the show’s prints. Yet Lawson has inscribed this radiance deeply in her work from the outset. Take Lawson’s windows which, in her compositions, are rarely left uncovered. Be it the hastily taped paper concealing a bit of door glazing in Sons of Cush (2016) or the unfathomable billowing curtains in Chief (2019), assorted window dressings tend to obscure or outright block direct passage from foreground to background. Such occlusions do not confine or restrict pictorial space, paradoxically. Occlusion makes room for the supernatural by closing off Cartesian extensionality and its colonizing reach. As a consequence, Lawson tinges what Siegfried Kracauer has called photography’s “physical redemption of reality” with the kind of magical realism associated with Toni Morrison’s haunting spirits or Kara Walker’s phantasmagoric silhouettes.
What draws me, in particular, to Lawson’s centropic photography are the ways it unwittingly advances the MMT-informed project of decolonial humanization, as theorized in a forthcoming essay by Jakob Feinig and Diren Valayden in the journal Humanity. Bringing together the writings of Paulo Freire and Frantz Fanon with contemporary work in heterodox economics and law, Feinig and Valayden argue that, against racializing colonization dynamics that violently diminish participation and knowledge, radical humanization is “that which emerges when people pursue the creation of new relations and institutions without relying on exclusionary conceptions of humans-in-society.” Critiquing the Cold-War era UESCO strategy that sought humanization through culture to the exclusion of political economy, moreover, Feinig and Valayden crucially insist that any genuinely global humanization project must place money and its abstract modes of mediation at its heart.
Money, Feinig and Valayden assert, is not a scarce and decentered exchange instrument for acquisitive modern subjects. Money is a capacious public utility that, however well or miserably, organizes inextricable dependencies across heterogenous scales. Money comprises what I have elsewhere called a boundless public center, which remains forever able to mobilize care and participation, invention and repair. On this basis, Feinig and Valayden surmise that the dehumanizing designations of certain communities as “outside” or merely “surplus” are as erroneous as they are noxious. “If there is a center that can always mobilize and connect people and resources,” Feinig and Valayden conclude, “then surplus people cannot exist.”
Still, if, as scholars in heterodox economics and law argue, money emanates from government’s centralized “fiscal backbone,” as legal scholar Christine Desan has described it, then how might we envision money as a distinctly global relation, which is irreducible to the modern nation-state and can be redirected toward anti-racist humanization?
A political blueprint exists in present proposals for a Global Green New Deal. Developed to its greatest potential, any Green New Deal program worthy of the name should aim to abolish the carbon economy and military- and prison-industrial complex within a single country, territory, or region by building up a politically democratic, environmentally sustainable, and fully employed care economy in their stead. Extending this vision across the entire world, a Global Green New Deal would pursue social and environmental justice in a similarly holistic and productive manner. In place of today’s zero-sum imagination of competition, domination, and marginalization among allegedly sovereign nation-states and stateless actors, a Global Green New Deal will attune us to inexorable social and ecological interdependencies and then labor to decolonize such entanglements by working through complex problems and promises looming therein. As MMT economist Fadhel Kaboub reasons, a Global Green New Deal of this kind will require us to establish new world-wide institutions and processes. Kaboub proposes fashioning, for example, a “Global Truth & Reconciliation Commission,” which would “hear and acknowledge the grievances of people who suffer the socio-economic, environmental and humanitarian consequences of colonial and post-colonial policies that have contributed to climate change and global inequality.”
To realize any such political project, however, it is imperative to overcome the entrenched ontological exteriority that has long buttressed colonialism and its de-humanizing racializations. Lawson’s centropic photography, I claim, provides one important, if preliminary, way forward. Without always overtly or self-consciously thematizing money, Lawson’s confined and often damaged interiors indicate how monetary projects of dehumanization historically shape empire, colonialization, and post-coloniality in ways that crisscross continents and undermine self-exculpating divisions between inside and outside. Repudiating Western modernity’s metaphysical oblivion, Lawson’s pantheon of Black luminaries also enfolds multiple loci of monetary mediation into a voluminous diasporic center, wherein marginalized forms of belonging and indebtedness assert their inexpungible pride of place. With this, a global demand for deliverance coincides with the esteem of worldly belonging.
In this way, Lawson might be said to proffer a kind of propaedeutic for Feinig and Valayden’s notion of humanization and, ultimately, for a Global Green New Deal. As a preliminary and indispensable re-orientation to globalized dehumanization, Lawson’s photography enables us to newly imagine anti-racist humanization as a truly reparative project in which money becomes a problem of worldly care and dignity is not so much bestowed as exalted.