Interview – Liz Johnson Artur

An old black man poses against a blank, red wall. His wide, grey double-breasted suit and thin spiv moustache hint to his aging style.
Liz Johnson Artur, Birmingham, 2002. Courtesy the artist.

There are lots of things one can learn from the work of Liz Johnson Artur: beauty, empathy, history, the way we relate to each other as humans, the way we occupy spaces we live in, and the role images play in our lives. But the most important thing is perhaps the crucial meaning of time for creative projects — something we don’t think about often in our era of immediacy. Johnson Artur has been working on her Black Balloon Archive for over thirty years, which makes it a fascinating testament to black diaspora, transnationalism, and all the things which make us human.

Johnson Artur’s studio is on the thirteenth floor of a South London tower block built in the 1960s. The balcony overlooks a big park where kids play football, and further on the horizon, the glass towers of the ever-changing London cityscape. From here, it’s particularly obvious how fragile certain creative and community spaces are, and how important it is to create them. Johnson Artur moved to London in 1991, and has been taking photographs across Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean for over three decades — while creating those spaces through her work. These spaces exist within her handcrafted books; ranging from big A4 accounts books to small notebooks which could almost fit in your hand. Across the pages you find become intricate, meaningful, life-affirming stories in photographs taken in churches and grime raves, at community gatherings, and, most recently, Black Pride and the notorious East London PDA night. Johnson Artur’s exhibition If You Know the Beginning, the End is No Trouble, currently showing at the South London Gallery, continues this process through visuals, sculpture and performances. I talked to Johnson Artur about her creative process, time and the meaning of diversity in culture.

One kid spits into the mic, with three other hands grasping to hold it. The only thing distinguishing the mass of people is their bright, box fresh sportswear.
Liz Johnson Artur, Under 18s Rave, East London, 2003. Courtesy the artist.

Your current exhibition at the South London Gallery is very different from the usual photography show; there are sculptural elements, images printed on different materials in different techniques. How did it all come together?

I approached South London Gallery with an idea to do a show last year. I moved out of my Peckham studio around that time and it felt like a good moment. My initial idea was to build a structure which looks like a house tent covered with pictures — but then we decided to work with the existing space of the room and activate it through sculptural elements. I make a lot of books, and the exhibition is a direct reflection of how I work in my books. I wanted the material to be organic, something people are drawn to, and didn’t want to use metal or any sharp things, and wanted strong structures without being heavy. A friend who is a sculptor built them using bamboo. The idea was always going to be about people coming together in a space and doing things there. 

I guess in that sense, the events programme is crucial: there are music performances by such great talents as Ms Carrie Stacks, Covco and Nkisi, poetry readings and talks…

Alx Dabo, who makes music as Suuto, is the one who got people together. The community around PDA party, who he is part of, were instrumental to this show. Through meeting them last year, I reconnected in a different way to the way I work. Usually, I take pictures and don’t really get too involved with people — and here it was nice to do so. The idea was to get the space through showing pictures but then get people in – these gatherings are what the show really is about. 

Liz Johnson Artur, Larry B, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

You currently have another show on at Brooklyn Museum, and a piece was also in Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition “A Time for New Dreams” at the Serpentine earlier this year. Has exhibiting changed the way you approach taking pictures? 

Not at all, and I’m trying to hold on to that. What’s changed is how I use or show my pictures. I’ve got boxes and boxes of prints, so now being able to show them is something I really enjoy. I’ve been left alone for a long time, people didn’t know about my work, and it was a big luxury I think — I managed to survive but also had total freedom. It’s not something I wanna give up. I make my own choices. At the same time, I don’t want to say a picture is not enough — but I always want to make sure there is a little bit more. It also comes from me having to digest all this work. Now I’m showing but for the last 20-25 years it was a dialogue between me and the pictures. So I had to work out something which would make sense without becoming just an accumulation.

What is your creative process like?

I’m an analogue photographer, so for me, it starts with the basics: film and camera choice. I like my tools, and that’s why I never switched to digital. The other thing is composition and working with light — and it’s the part I really have to concentrate on. A lot of times when I ask someone if I can take a picture, I have to be ready. I want things to be right; it is about the person and about creating that space around when their presence is the presence I think they deserve. I’m trying to hold on to all the backdrop, light, composition, and then leave space for someone to do their own thing. 

Liz Johnson Artur, Peckham, 2019. Installation view at the South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Andy Stagg

You have been working on your archive for almost 30 years. In today’s culture driven by immediacy, it seems like such a luxury to work on something for a long time. 

I certainly look at it as a luxury; I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve learnt to be very economical because for a long time all I could afford was to buy some rolls of films. For me, time is a big luxury. Sometimes I take pictures, and I would use them years later; let them rest for a while. When I started there was no such thing as a quick release. There was no Instagram and only a few magazines — and not everyone got in. All the museums which show my work now, if I had come in the 90s, I doubt it would have happened. The lack of opportunity is actually part of the luxury; it helped me in understanding how I would like my pictures to be, and also just becoming a better photographer. I also understand that part of the interest towards my work today is driven by the interest in diversity, and my work falls into that subject. 

How do you feel about that?

I think we have to start somewhere, and diversity is definitely good to talk about it. There is a lot of work to be done. Cultural institutions need refreshing — not just what they show but who makes the decisions. Time will tell. Let’s see what happens with the status quo, particularly in a country like this where it’s so manifested. 

You’ve been quoted to say that being normal is a luxury, and you’re trying to make normality a more diverse place. What did you mean exactly? 

I am very interested in normality, that’s why I go to public places which are accessible to everyone. Normal means whatever your background is, it doesn’t matter. The normality of making certain life choices is often reserved only for certain people. That’s why I think the notion of normality needs to be occupied, and its definition needs refreshing on all levels.

Does your background remain a big influence in your work?

When people write about my work they have to write about my background, and I actually find it irritating in a certain way. It is about a perspective from which people approach my work which I don’t see relevant. Particularly not where I am after I have been doing this for 30 years. Most people start from where they come from, and for me, it is being afro-Russian. But I don’t like being pushed into a corner where I am told that this is my narrative and this is my subject. Because I don’t work with a subject — I photograph human beings. Yes, most of the people in the archive are black but my archive is much bigger than that. I like to use my work to tell stories, whether it’s in a space or in a book. For me, these stories are not connected to who I am. They’re just the things I see.

Liz Johnson Artur, Burgess-parc-2010. Courtesy the artist.
A group of old Nigerian men sit around a table in a function room, engaged in an animated conversation. Plates of food and empty bottles of Supermalt and Guinness dot the table.
Liz Johnson Artur, Nigerian Party, 1995. Courtesy the artist.
Liz Johnson Artur, Brixton, 2010. Courtesy the artist.
Liz Johnson Artur, Ethiopian wedding, 2009. Courtesy the artist.

Liz Johnson Artur: If You Know the Beginning, the End is No Trouble is on view at South London Gallery until 1 September 2019. Entrance is free.