Collection 1970s–Present

Deana Lawson. Nation. 2017 209

Two inkjet prints, 55 1/2 × 67 1/4" (141 × 170.8 cm). Committee on Photography Fund. © 2023 Deana Lawson

Artist, Deana Lawson: I had a dream, and this dream I saw a man with that mouthpiece.

My name is Deana Lawson and I'm an artist and photographer. I was captivated by the story of George Washington's teeth. Apparently when he took inauguration as the first president, he had one tooth remaining in his mouth. And so he had dentures made, and they were made out of Ivory and gold wire and teeth from slaves. The picture is the actual photo of his dentures.

And then in the center of the frame, you have these two hip-hop artists, and I was really interested in gold, then how gold is displayed beautifully on black skin. And how I think hip-hop actually channels ancient kingdoms and how gold was worn, say in Kumasi with the Ashanti. So a couple weeks before the photo shoot I found this mouthpiece. It is a dental apparatus that's used to hold the mouth open, and I spray painted it gold because I wanted it to be like jewelry. The day of the shoot I had a table laid out of all the jewelry, and everyone's like yeah, I'll take this one that one but then they're like, "well, what is that?" I was like, "well that is a piece that someone is actually going to wear in their mouth." Ruben said, "I'll wear it."

I've been shooting maybe 30 or 40 minutes. I don't really take too much time shooting because people get tired and people got places to go, and I realized I hadn't used the freaking mouthpiece. And I was like, "oh we have to use this." At this point Killer Mo who is the subject with the ankh, he's texting on the phone, and I'm pretty much ready to take this shot, and I can see that Ruben is getting tired with this thing in his mouth. And I said, "Ruben, look at me." And I said, "Killer Mo, look up at me and do the trigger sign." And as soon as he looked up and he did the trigger, like [SOUND], then I did [SOUND] with my shutter and then that was a shot. It's almost like Killer Mo took the shot at history, at us, at the audience and saying, "I recognize you, I see you."

The subject in the back, I love how he kind of goes off frame. The body is present but then you have George Washington's teeth which to me mimics or is a metaphor for this immediate clash of history in the present moment. I really wanted the hip-hop community to see themselves in a certain light that has this immense sort of power with regards to history. James Baldwin said, the crown has already been paid for all we have to do is wear it. And that way I feel like every subject that I meet is wearing the crown, not because I take a picture of them, they already have that crown, but it's something that I want to capture within them, that represents a complex, deep, beautiful, celebratory, tragic, weird, strange, majesty of Black life.