Artist and educator Dave Lewis reflects on Dexter McLean's new commission for Autograph, considering politics of representation, disability and the black body.
Autograph has been commissioning more than ever during the pandemic, bringing together artists and writers to create new work for our project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other, reflecting on the wider context of the Covid-19 crisis.
For his artist commission Dexter McLean created Untitled (2020), a series of striking portraits that documents his closest community and captures the recognisable features of the pandemic we have all become accustomed to wearing - personal protection masks.
Below, Dave Lewis considers McLean’s new works alongside the artist’s wider practice and his thematic focus on representing black and disabled communities, questioning how we define ‘normal’ in our society.
The photographic work of Dexter McLean is produced through the prism of his existence and is informed by lived experience. At its core we encounter an enquiry into the black body, disability, and representation. Over the past few years and while studying for his Master’s degree, McLean has made critical shifts in his thinking not only concerning the image-making process but also the journey he wishes to pursue as a photographer and visual activist whose primary aim is to challenge the absence of imagery of disabled people across mainstream media, the history of visual culture and photography in particular, as well as the prevalence of negative imagery historically. His work constitutes a generous offering to his audience, a body of nuanced and layered representations that illustrate his relationship to himself and others: intimate moments of self-portrayal, and documentary portraiture of those who care for him, with whom he identifies and loves and cares for in return. McLean’s practice is powered by a passion for giving voice to those who have been silenced by the devastating body politics of classification.
In the series Untitled (2020), developed for Autograph’s artist commission Care | Contagion | Community – Self & Other, McLean has photographed his subjects looking straight back into the camera lens with their faces covered by personal protection masks. These faces locate the viewer within the immediacy of the current context of a global pandemic. The masks are symbolic of the public health and safety regulations that we have come to recognise as part of our new reality. However, those portrayed also share something that is not obvious to the viewer: they are all in McLean’s support bubble.
"McLean understands what it means to live with barriers, to be locked out of dialogue and isolated in society"
When read as a body of work, these portraits produce a collective tension: the masks leave little of the face to discern except a ‘forced’ close-up encounter with the eyes. The viewer has no choice but to return the confrontation of the sitters’ gaze. This device references one of McLean’s key influences, the late American photographer Richard Avedon who would ask his subjects to stare for long periods of time at the camera lens before taking his split-second exposures.
These close-up portraits of youthful black faces also inadvertently address the fact that in the past all of these boys and young men would have been at risk of being stopped and searched by the police if they dared to cover their faces with masks in public. McLean is here flirting with his audience’s understanding of this perception shift in the representation of masked faces and Black subjects, adding an important layer to this turbulent visual history. His series of portraits invites the audience to consider the mask as a signifier that now works to remind us of the devastating and disproportional impact of Covid-19 on the African, Caribbean and Asian populations in the UK.
As an artist with cerebral palsy, McLean understands what it means to live with barriers, to be locked out of dialogue and isolated in society. So, while we collectively await a return to our pre-Covid-19 ‘normal’, McLean through the production of this series wants us to reflect on the resonances of what defines ‘normal’, how this ideology is metered out, and by whom and for what purpose? This thought underscores both the gravity and necessity of McLean’s practice, and, because of his own personal circumstances, is tangentially reflected in these striking new portraits.
Dave Lewis is a photographer and lecturer teaching photographic practices across the disciplines of anthropology, fine art and commercial photography. His work has been exhibited in a number of venues such as The Photographers' Gallery, London - The Stephen Lawrence Report & Wall (2001); the National Gallery - Seduced by Art (2012); and Venice Biennale - Once Removed/My Father’s land (2017/2019). He is currently working on a new series of image/text works around making and being.
You can see Lewis' work on his website.
See the full artist commission by Dexter McLean
Read an interview with the artist and Autograph's Director Mark Sealy
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibitions are now in development
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Images, from top: 1) Dexter McLean, Kinsley [detail], 2020. From the series Untitled, 2020. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion| Community — Self & Other.
Other page images: 2) Dave Lewis. Photograph by Franklyn Rodgers.