Deana Lawson has won the Hugo Boss Prize, which ranks among the top art awards in the world and is given to one artist every other year. The New York–based photographer will now take home $100,000, and as part of the prize, she will have an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in spring 2021. She is now the first-ever photographer to win the award, which has historically gone to artists who make monumental sculptures and video installations.
Lawson’s photography centers Black men and women, and features them in poses and settings that appear to be highly naturalistic, but are in fact carefully staged in advance. They tend to feature individuals who appear to be families and couples, and they allude to histories of disaporas and racism in the process. “Photography,” Lawson once said, “has the power to make history and the present moment speak towards each other.”
It is a body of work that, because of its rigorous conceptual framework, has been hard to define. But, in its reworking of art-historical tropes and its emphasis on tenderness and intimacy, her photography’s aesthetic has proven influential. Zadie Smith once wrote of Lawson’s photography, “Black people are not conceived as victims, social problems, or exotics but, rather, as what Lawson calls ‘creative, godlike beings’ who do not ‘know how miraculous we are.’”
In a statement, the prize’s jury praised Lawson’s work for the way it creates a “compelling new mode of seeing and imagining.”
“I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to all the individuals and families whom I’ve collaborated with in my photographs,” Lawson said in a statement. “Your generosity and trust on this journey have been most appreciated. As we all know, it takes and village, and with that, I would also thank a list of institutions, galleries, curators, collectors, writers, and fellow artists whom I’ve worked with over the years.”
That list of institutions includes the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston and MoMA PS1 in New York, which are currently at work on the first-ever museum survey devoted to Lawson, due to open in Boston in 2021, and the forthcoming Bienal de São Paulo, which commissioned her to create a new series of photographs focused on the African diaspora in Salvador, Brazil. (Pictures from that new series were on view at the Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland earlier this year.) Her work also appeared in the 2017 edition of the Whitney Biennial and the 2011 edition of “New Photography,” a recurring showcase for emerging photographers at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as in solo shows at the Underground Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Lawson has also been making headlines in recent months. In June, she joined the roster of David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles (she is also currently represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York, where she will have a show in 2021), and over the summer, she photographed Angela Davis for the digital cover of Vanity Fair’s September issue.
Also up for consideration for the Hugo Boss Prize this year were Nairy Baghramian, Kevin Beasley, Elias Sime, Cecilia Vicuña, and Adrián Villar Rojas. Lawson was selected as the winner by Naomi Beckwith, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Katherine Brinson, a contemporary art curator at the Guggenheim; Julieta González, an independent curator; Christopher Y. Lew, a curator at the Whitney Museum; and Nat Trotman, a performance and media curator at the Guggenheim.
The Hugo Boss Prize was inaugurated in 1996, and has gone to various major talents, including Matthew Barney (1996), Pierre Huyghe (2002), Simone Leigh (2018), Dahn Vo (2012), and Anicka Yi (2016).
“As we’re all aware, 2020 has been a trying year on so many fronts,” Lawson said in her statement. “It is during this moment that I feel the most call to continue the work of image-making, understanding that photographers have immense power and reimagining new thresholds for evolution and liberation.”