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“A Peace (of the Dream),” Sonya Lawyer’s exhibit of mixed media works at Flashpoint Gallery, is an understated meditation on history and ancestry.
In 2003, while she was researching her family’s roots for her master’s thesis, Lawyer began collecting other people’s vintage photo albums, because they “reminded her of the images treasured by her grandparents.” She then stitched together variations on these photographs with squares of hand-dyed quilt fabric.
Lawyer’s repurposing of forgotten sepia images of anonymous people of color is moving. The works’ repetition of portraiture owes something to Andy Warhol, and the fabric design calls to mind the famous Gee’s Bend quilts, though Lawyer’s square matrices are more orderly, and the hues more restrained, than either of these progenitors.
Evoking the works of the early 20th century German photographer August Sander, Lawyer assembles an almost encyclopedic typology of portraiture of people of color. There are sisters, men in military uniforms, a sports team, men wearing bow ties, prom portraits, autographed photos, and any number studio shots taken with fake, woodsy backgrounds.
The strongest works are those that initiate a dialogue between image and fabric. One wedding photograph is torn to remove one of the newlyweds; the resulting jagged edge contrasts with the straight lines of the quilt, emphasizing the dislocation of a family presumably torn asunder.
In another piece, a man wearing a handsome overcoat is paired with pleated fabric that could easily come from wool clothing. A third work (shown, middle) arranges four photographs horizontally, separated by three shades ranging from white to brown that could approximate the tones of both sepia printing and skin color.
We don’t know much about these men, women and children, and in most cases, Lawyer doesn’t either. But to the artist’s credit, the viewer still feels a human connection—-what might fairly be called a shared human tapestry.
Through Aug. 2 at Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St, NW, Washington, D.C. Wed–Sat 12-6.