Nationally touring exhibition will open at the ICA in November 2021 and travel to MoMA PS1 and the High Museum of Art in 2022

(Boston, MA—October 8, 2021) The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) and MoMA PS1 have co-organized the first museum survey dedicated to the work of Deana Lawson (b. 1979, Rochester, NY), a singular voice in photography today. Drawing on a wide spectrum of photographic languages, including the family album, studio portraiture, staged tableaux, and appropriated images, Lawson’s posed photographs channel broader ideas about personal and social histories, sexuality, and spiritual beliefs. Featuring a selection of over fifty photographs from 2004 to the present, this exhibition features the full range of Lawson’s career to date and establishes for the first time a narrative arc of her expansive vision. This nationally touring exhibition will be on view November 4, 2021–February 27, 2022 at the ICA; April 14–September 5, 2022 at MoMA PS1; and October 7, 2022–February 19, 2023 at the High Museum of Art. Deana Lawson is co-organized by ICA/Boston and MoMA PS1. Organized by Eva Respini, Barbara Lee Chief Curator, ICA/Boston, and Peter Eleey, Curator-at-Large, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing and Shanghai, with Anni Pullagura, Curatorial Assistant, ICA/Boston.

“With a painterly appreciation of composition, color, and scale, Deana Lawson creates works of intimacy, atmosphere and mystery. Her domestic scenes evoke the familiarity of family photographs, yet each work is a highly-staged arrangement exploring facets of Black life. Lawson tackles complex issues about race and photography that are timely, thorny, and essential. We look forward to sharing her work, and the important publication that accompanies the exhibition, with audiences,” said Jill Medvedow, the ICA’s Ellen Matilda Poss Director.

“Singular in their vision, profoundly complex in their ideas, Deana Lawson’s pictures possess an intimacy and immediacy that can be both uplifting and startling. Enriched by a range of backstories—photographic histories, feminist histories, Black histories—Lawson’s work is also informed by her life experiences, pop culture, her interest in both spirituality and photographic technology. In occupying a space of multiplicity and ambiguity, this relentlessly adventurous artist has produced some of the most resonant images of our time,” said Eva Respini, the ICA’s Barbara Lee Chief Curator.

Lawson’s pictures are portals to imaginative realms, highly staged, large-format color photographs that depict individuals, couples, and groups in both domestic and public settings, constructing narratives of family, love, intimacy, and desire. Her body of work models a mythical community from across the African and African American diasporas, building an extended family of strangers in living rooms, kitchens and back yards from Brooklyn to New Orleans, Haiti to Ethiopia, and Brazil to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rather than creating documentary or biographical pictures, Lawson makes images that tell stories to reclaim an expansive Black experience.

“Much of Lawson’s work comes to life in the space between the truth presumed in a photograph and the art of making one, which in her hands becomes a vast and magical universe,” said exhibition co-curator Peter Eleey. “Though revelatory, Lawson’s pictures also draw attention to what the camera cannot capture—and in turn, to the many aspects of Black life that exceed forms of representation that establish and control the ways in which Black subjects are permitted to appear.”

The camera has a long history as a tool of objectification and subjugation, and Lawson uses photography to unsettle assumptions about the facts the medium purports to deliver. She carefully composes each scene, but does not always disclose details about how she has created them, or even where the photographs were taken; in some cases, she works with found images that depict people she does not know. Her tableaux tend to be composed of people she encounters on her travels rather than family, friends, or acquaintances; despite what certain pictures may suggest, some of the artist’s subjects may not have met before the shoot. Lawson finds photography’s contradictions and fraught history to be perfectly suited to the challenges of representing what she describes as “the majesty of Black life, a nuanced Black life, one that is by far more complex, deep, beautiful, celebratory, tragic, weird, strange.”

Artist biography

Deana Lawson (b. 1979, Rochester, NY) lives and works between New York and Los Angeles. Lawson received her B.F.A. from Pennsylvania State University (2001) and M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design (2004). Lawson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship (2013), Aaron Siskind Fellowship Grant (2008–09), and a New York Foundation for the Arts Grant (2006), among others. In 2020, she was selected for the Hugo Boss Prize, the first photographer to receive the award in recognition of achievement in contemporary art. She is currently the inaugural Dorothy Krauklis ’78 Professor of Visual Arts with the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.


This survey exhibition will be accompanied by the first scholarly publication on the artist, surveying fifteen years of her photography. Featuring the voices and perspectives of a variety of scholars, historians, and writers, the catalogue includes essays by exhibition curators Eva Respini and Peter Eleey, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Tina M. Campt, Alexander Nemerov, Greg Tate, and a conversation between the artist and Deborah Willis.

Advisory Group

In the process of organizing the exhibition, the ICA convened an advisory group of community leaders, artists, scholars, and peers who contributed to the presentation of this exhibition in Boston and helped to shape exhibition programming, didactics, and outreach. The committee was made up of the following individuals: Eden Bekele, Digital Associate at PICTURESTART; Kimberly Juanita Brown, Associate Professor, Department of English, Dartmouth College; Patricia Davis, Associate Professor, College of Arts, Media, and Design, Northeastern University; Nia Evans, Director, Boston Ujima Project; L’Merchie Frazier, Director of Education, Museum of African American History, Boston; Kai Grant, Principal, Afrikai, LLC, and Chief Curator, Black Market Nubian; Nikki Greene, Assistant Professor of Art, Wellesley College; Dell Hamilton, artist; James Pierre, artist and educator; Lisa Simmons, Director, Roxbury International Film Festival; President/Founder, the Color of Film Collaborative, Inc.; and Community Initiative Program Manager, Mass Cultural Council; and Akili Tommasino, Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

About the ICA

Since its founding in 1936, the ICA has shared the pleasures of reflection, inspiration, imagination, and provocation that contemporary art offers with its audiences. A museum at the intersection of contemporary art and civic life, the ICA has advanced a bold vision for amplifying the artist’s voice and expanding the museum’s role as educator, incubator, and convener. Its exhibitions, performances, and educational programs provide access to the breadth and diversity of contemporary art, artists, and the creative process, inviting audiences of all ages and backgrounds to participate in the excitement of new art and ideas. The ICA is located at 25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA, 02210. The Watershed is located at 256 Marginal Street, East Boston, MA 02128. For more information, call 617-478-3100 or visit our website at Follow the ICA at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Deana Lawson is co-organized by ICA/Boston and MoMA PS1. This exhibition is organized by Eva Respini, Barbara Lee Chief Curator, ICA/Boston, and Peter Eleey, Curator-at-Large, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing and Shanghai, with Anni Pullagura, Curatorial Assistant, ICA/Boston. 

Major support for Deana Lawson is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Henry Luce Foundation logo

Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts logo

Additional support for the ICA/Boston presentation is generously provided by Bridgitt and Bruce Evans, Aedie McEvoy, Kambiz and Nazgol Shahbazi, Kim Sinatra, Charlotte and Herbert S. Wagner III, the Fotene Demoulas Fund for Curatorial Research and Publications, the Jennifer Epstein Fund for Women Artists, and The Kristen and Kent Lucken Fund for Photography.