Johnson Artur calls the body of work she has been accumulating over the past thirty years her Black Balloon Archive. The name derives from the song “Black Balloons,” featured on American soul singer Syl Johnson’s 1969 album Is It Because I’m Black?, which expresses his joy at seeing a large black balloon dancing against a “snow-white” sky.
The artist’s Archive is a trove of stories, people, and encounters that Johnson Artur has captured around London and during her travels since 1991. Unlike most photographic archives, it makes no attempt to be linear, systematic, or complete. “It grows according to my rules,” the photographer says. “And it’s my strategy for coexisting with the many individuals I’ve met.” Johnson Artur is motivated by a hunger for pictures of and connections with other people, always conscious of how they want to represent themselves.
This group of photographs features a close-knit London community of artists, performers, dancers, and clubbers who Johnson Artur met in 2018. Some are associated with the monthly East London club night PDA (Public Display of Affection), which invites DJs, collectives, and artists to perform for their peers and create an inclusive space for self-expression. As with all of her photographs, here she closely collaborates with her subjects.
Last year, Johnson Artur began photographing and interviewing the Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, who first opened a studio in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in the 1950s. After Ghana gained independence from Great Britain in 1957, Barnor moved to London, where he continued working for the South Africa–based magazine Drum, helping to bring Black models into mainstream British media. Barnor returned to Ghana in the early 1970s to open the first color processing studio in the country. He has been based in London since 1993.
“For me, meeting James Barnor was a dream come true,” says Johnson Artur. “He is a legend, and I always wanted to meet a photographer of his stature. On my two visits, I had the great pleasure to listen to his stories about Ghana, arriving in England in the 1960s, and about the people he photographed. He had a story for every picture he showed.”
Liz Johnson Artur: Dusha
May 3–August 18, 2019
Stephanie and Tim Ingrassia Gallery of Contemporary Art, 4th Floor
Brooklyn is where it all started for Russian Ghanaian artist Liz Johnson Artur (b. 1964). While visiting in 1986, she stayed with a Russian family in a predominantly Black neighborhood and began experimenting with her first camera. Having grown up in Bulgaria, Germany, and Russia, she was inspired by her visit to use photography as a way to connect with other people of African descent. Since moving to London in 1991, she has employed photography not only to make a living—publishing work in magazines such as i-D and The Face—but also to document the multiplicity of everyday life in Africa, Europe, North America, and the Caribbean.
Dusha, the Russian word for “soul,” is Johnson Artur’s first solo museum exhibition. It primarily features a selection of photographic works, including photo “sketchbooks” and videos, that draw from her vast Black Balloon Archive. This includes some of her most iconic pictures from the past thirty years as well as new photographs, such as portraits of people associated with a monthly East London club night. A copious selection of the artist's photographic sketchbooks highlights the ways in which she has organized and conceptualized her Archive since the early 1990s. Two videos and a sound installation show how she focuses on the unique voices of her subjects, from the stories of other Russians of African and Caribbean descent to a visual and audio portrait of legendary Ghanaian photographer James Barnor.
Liz Johnson Artur: Dusha is curated by Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography, Brooklyn Museum.