ASU graduate Diandra Lawson explores connections across the black diaspora
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of ASU Thrive.
Nearly 15 years ago, Diandra Lawson began her career at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she studied art history and visual arts, Lawson needed a job and was eager to get a foot in the museum. So I worked at the museum’s box office. She took her temporary role very seriously, treating each day as an interview and an opportunity to make connections with art professionals. Eventually, a full-time job opened up on the museum’s development team, where she worked for four years.
Lawson was ready for a fundraising promotion when she jumped into the photography department’s coordinating team in 2012. The move was a rare opportunity.
“At the time, it was difficult because they weren’t really hiring people in entry-level positions in curation who didn’t have graduate degrees,” Lawson says.
Working for the largest art museum in the western United States, she had unrestricted access to LACMA’s encyclopedic collection of more than 147,000 paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other arts spanning continents and centuries. As an curatorial assistant, Lawson has collaborated with museum curators, manages, researches and sponsors LACMA’s collection of art, and assists in the planning of exhibitions.
It wasn’t long before Lawson found contrasts on the set and began working to help expand the range of artists represented.
Today, Lawson is planning a new exhibition as Associate Curator, an upgrade she received after graduating from an ASU-LACMA MA Fellowship in Art History, which provides research support for emerging museum professionals, expert mentorship and a graduate degree.
As an assistant curator rather than an assistant curator, Lawson’s work focuses primarily on research and writing, and more leadership and ownership in exhibition making and collection development.
Art that conveys what it means to be alive
Lawson’s area of expertise is photography and video art after 1970. The Museum’s photography collection ranges from the beginning of the medium in the 19th century to the present day, focusing primarily on practitioners in the United States and Europe. Although the museum has expanded its representation of Latino makers and black artists in recent years, “like most photographic departments, the founding groups were artists of European or white American descent,” Lawson says.
“I immediately noticed a bias in the way the group has been assembled over the years, and that includes the legacy of the curators and the building of the groups,” she says.
At LACMA, Lawson’s day often begins with a stroll through the galleries dedicated to African and ancient Egyptian art. Looking back, her walk into her office was also a metaphor for, “How I saw myself in the museum,” Lawson says.
I thought about what it means to be a black woman living in Los Angeles. I thought of the Black Diaspora, a community of people around the world who have either moved or been forced out of their ancestral homeland.
“It’s a way of thinking about the history of immigration, a way of thinking about the impact and consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, and the legacy of that trade, but it has also been adopted by political thinkers as a way to express black solidarity,” she says.
These experiences planted the seeds for her exhibition, titled “Imagining the Black Diaspora: Art and Poetry of the Twenty-first Century.” Scheduled to open at LACMA on November 12, 2023, and run through March 24, 2024, the extensive exhibition including photography, painting, installation, sculpture and time-based media will focus on the aesthetic connections between living contemporary artists across the Black Diaspora. Additionally, Lawson is working on a 104-page catalog that will be published for the exhibition.
The exhibition will focus on amazing works by artists from the United States, across Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and Canada. Sandra Brewster is one of those performers who will be included in the show. The Toronto-based visual artist explores identity and representation, highlighting the Black experience in Canada. Another, Susana Pilar Delahante Matinzo, is a Cuban visual artist whose photographic, video, and performance work often responds to the history of violence against women.
While many art galleries focusing on the black diaspora focus on slavery, immigration, or trade, Lawson’s gallery explores the ways in which artists respond to their life experiences, both in challenging and joyful moments, ultimately resulting in a sense of empowerment for both artists and their works.
“I haven’t seen a show that takes an essentially aesthetic approach or understand that aesthetics communicate what it means to be alive,” Lawson says. “People tend to reduce aesthetics down to how things look, but I think the way artists arrange things or rearrange things aesthetically tells us what it means to be alive. This is very important to black people around the world who have been historically marginalizing their stories.”
Lawson’s exhibition expands on her research as an ASU-LACMA Master’s Fellowship student in Art History. Lawson was part of the inaugural class beginning in 2018, taking coursework while continuing to work full time at the museum. For Lawson, the fellowship provided an opportunity to delve into the LACMA group, expand her knowledge in her field, and develop the methodology for her eventual exhibition planning and postgraduate degree—a key factor in becoming valuable.
The ASU-LACMA Fellowship helped Lawson overcome the two biggest barriers to graduate education: cost and time, she says.
Raised in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Lawson grew up immersed in art. She loved to draw, and her mother, a high school teacher, taught typography using the darkroom. “Wherever we lived, she would always put a few trays of chemistry in the bathroom and laundry room,” Lawson says.
“I’ve been rich in support, which is really profound,” Lawson says. “And I’m very fortunate and grateful to have someone who has supported my interest in art, because a lot of families don’t think this is a legitimate career path.”
Deep knowledge to share
Lawson experienced many transformative moments during her three-year fellowship. One was on a course taught by Angelica Avanador-Pujol, Associate Professor of Art History and Museum Studies, and Program Director at the time of launch. In the chapter, “(Mis)Representation of Justice: Art, Law, and Censorship,” Lawson tested an idea that became a chapter in her thesis and the subject of the exhibition. I wrote a research paper on the aesthetic connections between contemporary Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford and Sami Baluji, a photographer from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who now works in Europe.
It was aha! Moment – identifying speech and silence as particularly powerful and poignant for black peoples.
“The bets on when to speak and when not have to be really high. Looking at the work of artists across the diaspora, a lot of them were depicting people who were murdered or lived a serious reality,” she says.
Lawson’s thought process of seeing these connections impressed Avanador-Pujol, as well as building Lawson’s relationship.
“You often talk to artists and develop these relationships to make these works stand out,” Avanadore Pujol says. “The fact that she is at LACMA, she can put these works at center stage in the art world, which has not always been the case.”
While developing her thesis, Lawson also worked closely with Olga Fieso, a renowned curator and scholar who serves as a senior advisor for Global Partnerships in the Arts at the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.
“It was clear that while developing her thesis, it would be a great exhibition,” says Wiesu.
After graduation, Lawson submitted her proposal to the Coordinating Advisory Group at LACMA before the show was officially added to the museum’s calendar. The Lawson Gallery will help shape, expand and diversify the LACMA collection.
“I am proud that LACMA recognized the power of her voice and gave her the opportunity to put this research into action so quickly,” says Viso. “This would be a great contribution.”
Develop relationships with artists
While working on the gallery, Lawson makes visits to the artists’ studio, researches places for potential collaborations, plans the visual layout of the display and identifies artworks that would be meaningful inclusions in the museum’s permanent collection.
“Right now, I’m in the process of making acquisitions, either through fundraising events or through supporting individuals,” Lawson says.
Viso describes Lawson’s curatorial work as “strong and clear” and says, “I’m very happy to see her progress in this area because I think she will really be an important voice.”
As she continues to plan, Lawson is brimming with ideas for future exhibitions. Most importantly, Lawson wants to continue her work to expand LACMA’s representation of artistic practices, and to find more connections across time periods, places, and cultures.
“Now that I’m an official curator, each exhibition is an opportunity to share something with the audience and make a statement, and I hope it inspires some magic, some joy, to highlight something that hasn’t been widely publicized or talked about,” she says.
5 artists to know
According to Associate Curator of Los Angeles County Museum of Art Diandra Lawson, here are five artists to look at:
• Sami Baloji, Democratic Republic of the Congo (pictured above).
• Mark Bradford, Los Angeles.
• Sandra Brewster, Toronto.
• Susana Pilar dellante Matenzo, Cuba.
• Grace Ndereto, Britain and Kenya.
Take a look at upcoming exhibitions and sign up for email notifications to include the Lawson Gallery which will be on view from November 12, 2023 to March 24, 2024 at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Building. Go to lacma.org.
The story of Makeda Easter, formerly a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covers the arts.
Photographs by Stephen Denton, a Los Angeles-based commercial photographer whose clients include The Guardian, ESPN, The Wall Street Journal, and Forbes.
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