Dana Lixenberg’s Big Shaan: a stark tale of neglect

Watts going on …

The Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg’s 20-year documentary project Imperial Courts features the black and Latino inhabitants and external spaces of an unloved social housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. Notorious as a “problem area” where the Crips gang originated, it’s socially and psychically cut off from other neighbourhoods, sited on the edge of the freeway’s brutalist barrier.

LA story …

Lixenberg’s photographs, created in collaboration with the residents over many years, tell the story of ongoing neglect, the static deprivation. However, through multiple portraits of the same people across time, they also compel us to engage imaginatively with the untold changes that shape an individual history. Bravura teens become parents. Life’s milestones are celebrated. Familiar faces disappear. Some meet violent ends.

Power to the people …

While this is an evolving communal portrait, Lixenberg has said she wants each image to be “its own self-contained story”. Big Shaan from 1993 is a case in point. It is one of the first photographs in the series yet, in subtle ways, it already speaks to the project’s memorial concerns: what is lost and what remains.

So solid …

Big Shaan fully inhabits the picture’s frame, as solid as the blocky phone she holds aloft. For all her immediacy and presence, there is a strong suggestion of moments disappearing as time passes. Only individual memory – and no photograph – can preserve the unknown voice at the end of the phone, itself now a glaring relic. Big Shaan alone knows what has shaped her cool stare.

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Changes …

Lixenberg began this series in 1993, after the Watts riots. It underscores how much and how little has changed today.

Included in The City & the City & the City, Frestonian Gallery, W1, to 31 October



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