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Donavon Smallwood’s Dreamy Photographs Reexamine Black Leisure in Central Park

During the summer of 2020, which saw mass protests and civil unrest in the middle of a global pandemic, photographer needed a break. He had had enough. “I was just so overwhelmed that I just turned it all off,” Smallwood told Artsy. He avoided watching the news, changed his Twitter location to Japan so he wouldn’t receive any local updates, and headed into Central Park.
Originally from East Harlem, Smallwood was accustomed to spending his days in Central Park, but this time, he sought to break free from an existential weight. “I just wanted to escape all of it and just go into nature,” he explained. “It was more of a reflection of how I was feeling inside, which culminates in what being Black in nature is, because that’s who I am.”
On medium format film, Smallwood shot black-and-white portraits of other young Black people he found taking refuge in Central Park, along with images of the park itself. The works made during this time culminated into his “Languor” series (2021). At once elegant, dreamlike, and powerful, the body of work went on to win the 2021 Aperture Portfolio Prize, cementing Smallwood’s status as one of the great new photographers to watch. Selections from “Languor” and a new series about the Smallwood family’s history in Washington, North Carolina, will be on view in his upcoming solo exhibition at The Print Center in Philadelphia, opening on January 21st.
Perhaps surprisingly, Smallwood initially wanted to become an archaeologist until one of his high school teachers pointed out that photography in itself was a form of archaeology. As Smallwood digs into both history and modern cultural representation to inform his photographs, archaeology’s lasting influence on his art practice becomes clear. “Languor,” in particular, was in part inspired by the history of Seneca Village, a community of African Americans who were expelled from their property in 1857 to make way for what would become Central Park.
Smallwood didn’t learn of the existence of Seneca Village until 2020, when he came across a short-form Vox documentary about it. “I spend so much time here doing so much stuff,” Smallwood said. “How did I not know about this? It was just hurtful.” The “Languor” series became a way to do something about it. “It made me want to go out and photograph the space and try to reflect what I was feeling,” he said.
Smallwood’s photographs, by his own description, started off bleak with stark contrasts, but ultimately became “a love letter to the park and a note about disillusionment, because it’s not this fantasy world that I made it out to be,” he said. “But at the same time, it kind of is.”
Elyssa Goodman