2015 New York Times


Notes From Afar
Allan deSouza
by Holland Cotter

In 2011, the Phillips Collection in Washington commissioned Allan deSouza to create a photographic response to Jacob Lawrence’s 60-painting Migration Series (1940-41), half of which is owned by the Phillips, the other half by the Museum of Modern Art in New York (where the entire work is on display through Sept. 7). The Lawrence cycle tells the story of the great diaspora of African-Americans, beginning in World War I, from the rural South to the industrialized North. Mr. deSouza, who was born in Kenya of South Asian parentage and lives in California, has long made displacement and alienation a subject of his art and does so again in The World Series,his incisive update to the older work.

The changes are telling. In the Lawrence series, migration is a group experience, done mostly by rail. In Mr. deSouza’s 21st-century international equivalent, travel is by air and apparently solitary. Many of his pictures are of airports all but empty of people but peppered with hostile signs forbidding trespass, announcing surveillance or signaling a police presence. Despite the differences, these images, with their cropped forms and repeated diagonals, have striking visual links to the Lawrence series. Depictions of outright violence like those seen in the paintings are absent, but a mood of inhuman chill takes their place.

A second work, however, catches something like the nightmare side of Mr. Lawrence’s vision. Titled Ark of Martyrs (2014), it has two elements: a recorded voice reading the opening pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and, scrolling down a video screen, Mr. deSouza’s extraordinary rewrite of the Conrad text, which casts its fevered, racist delirium into contemporary political terms of war, Wall Street and religion. The results take Mr. deSouza in exciting new directions that I look forward to following.

Notes From Afar is on view at Talwar Gallery, 108 East 16th Street, Flatiron district, now
through June 6.

Holland Cotter is an award winning staff art critic at The New York Times.
© New York Times 2015