Words by Subin Anderson
Photography by Olivia Lifungula
Claudette Johnson renders her sitters visible through the intersection of monumental scale and subtle, yet vibrant color. Her oeuvres manipulate empty space to amplify the presence of Black women and their lived experiences. Through staging intimate gazes and agential postures, Johnson gestures towards Black women’s exclusion from the canon of art history while also forging a new canon entirely.
Subin Anderson: You don’t describe yourself as a painter of portraits, as the subject you have chosen is a political statement itself.
Claudette Johnson: I don’t usually describe myself as a portrait painter because I don’t follow many of the conventions of traditional portraiture in my work. I’m not primarily concerned with likeness or making a statement about the sitter’s background, status, or interests. Instead, my focus is on conveying something essential about their presence and something universal about their existence. That said, I have recently accepted a portrait commission in which I have focused on likeness and conveying something about the sitter’s character. But usually, these are not my main concerns.
Representation matters, and it certainly takes on both an aesthetic and political resonance through your works. You represent Black women, first and foremost, as subjects, leaving space for us to find their presence.
I think because so many stereotypes about black women and men abound, it’s important to resist the urge to present heroic figurations of us that offer a radical alternative to the negative imagery out there. I hope to provide a more intimate view of my subject but on a monumental scale in my work.
Could you talk about what it means for you to work on a large scale?
Working large-scale makes drawing a much more physical and strenuous act. I am quite small in stature, so working on oversized sheets of paper equal to, or greater than, my height forces me to use the energy of my whole body. I believe this facilitates more dynamic mark-making. It’s also more exciting for me as I feel slightly out of control, and I like not to predict exactly how this will affect the line. Many of the figures in [my] drawings/paintings are larger than life, enabling the viewer to have their field of vision filled by the figure’s presence. I hope that something will resonate with the viewer through this encounter.
Your solo exhibition, Still Here (2021), was created during the lockdown. I believe the title itself connotes the ways in which we are still here, existing, fighting through this pandemic. At the same time, it speaks for all communities and histories that have been made invisible.
Yes, the lockdown was such a solitary and precarious period—we almost had to pinch ourselves to remind ourselves that we were still here.
You were a prominent member of BLK Art Group, born amidst the regressive British economy and racial disparity in the ‘80s. The group aimed to raise the profile of Black artists and encourage young white artists to be more socially relevant in their practice. Could you take us back to the cultural and social transitions happening during that time—and your recollections of it?
Joining the BLK Art Group or the WYBAs (Wolverhampton Young Black Artists) as we were initially named was a pivotal moment for me. I was a second-year Fine Art student at Wolverhampton Polytechnic when I met Eddie Chambers, a first-year fine art student at Sunderland Polytechnic. Eddie organized and exhibited in Black Art n’ Done at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. This was the first black art show I had ever seen, and it was inspiring to see raw, passionate works that foregrounded black British experience. Eddie gave a lecture at my art college and afterward came to my college studio space, looked at my work, and invited me to join what became The BLK Art Group. As a group member, I took part in most of the Group’s shows and gave a presentation at The First National Black Art Convention held at Wolverhampton University in 1982. It was a heady time with much-heated debate about what black art should or could be. It also introduced me to a whole community of artists, including Lubaina Himid, Marlene Smith, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney, Frank Bowling, Sonia Boyce, Brenda Agard, Pitika Ntuli, Houria Niatia, Veronic Ryan who were making thrilling and influential work. I feel lucky to have somehow found myself at the epicenter of black creativity in the ‘80s.
Works in this period were about deconstructing the figure and reflecting the discontinuities in history. Untitled, 1987 includes one subject in three different types of views. Here, you create a vertical composition with varying widths, colors, and techniques, providing a multifocal view of the Black women subjects in your work.
Untitled, 1987 features images of a friend, sitter, and artist-photographer Brenda Agard. I had taken a series of black-and-white shots of her on my SLR camera, which I developed and printed in the Lenthall Road Workshop darkroom where I worked at the time. I often found doing the test strips (strips of photographic paper used to establish how long the exposure should be for the final print) one of the most exciting parts of the process, and this was the case with these. The test strips are fragments of the whole—only a section of the exposed image is used, and the photographic paper is torn into strips before being exposed. The final work is a mix of drawings that she sat for, and drawings based on the test strips. I wanted to explore how fragmented images of the same subject, when juxtaposed, create a new story.
The figures’ gazes and poses in your work make it feel like they’re connecting with the viewers subconsciously and providing a temporary lens into their reality.
I’d like to think that the figures in my works inhabit the space in quite a grand way, i.e. they occupy ample space in a way that makes us feel curious about their world. The presence of black figures in western art has been sparse, and often we have been in the shadows or have been minor figures. I think, because of this history, the figures in my work are a reminder of the absences in art history.
What catches your attention these days, whether it’s music, artists, books, artworks, or a new hobby?
Oil painting is my new hobby! But more seriously, my current hobby is skipping. I even skip in the studio between paintings.
How has the role of discomfort in your creative practice, and in the work itself, developed over time?
Almost as soon as I began to work with pastels, I was aware that they have seductive and lush qualities that allowed me to create smooth tonal transitions. Trilogy 1982-86 is an example of this use of pastels. However, sometimes I wanted to disrupt those qualities by using a more limited palette, often only one or two colors. Working with black pastel in some of the early ‘80s works, and in burnt umber or raw sienna in later work, allowed me to make works with a greater tonal range than that afforded by charcoal. I wanted to make a bold and immediate mark that creates an impact. I was trying to create figures that existed in an ahistorical space, without reference to location or time—figures that were linear, asymmetrical, dynamic, fugitive, at times distorted, to refer to the history that has shaped us. I feel that our histories are carried in our bodies: the body is the message.
You primarily use pastel and watercolor, which lend a subtle, graceful texture to your work. But you also use different mediums, such as oil and acrylic, which contain a stronger, more vibrant visual presence. I wonder what these mediums each signify to you?
Over the last three years, I have begun to use oil paints and acrylic paints for some works. Seated Figure, 2021 is made entirely in oils and returned to this medium after a 30-year absence. Before this, I had last worked in oils as a first-year fine art student! I am enjoying working with oils, though I am still getting used to the drying times that they require. I love the texture and depth of color that can be achieved with oils. Before this, I have worked mainly with gouache and soft pastels. I found that the gouache could be overlaid with pastels, allowing me to move fluidly between drawing and painting. I love the edge that drawing can bring to painting and the large sweeps of color that can be achieved with paint.
White space (ex. Reclining Figure, 2017 / Seated Figure II, 2017) also appears repeatedly in your work, contrasting with areas of dense pastel.
Yes I’ve always wanted the unpainted areas to have as much of a role in the impact of the works, as the worked areas.
Given the theme of intimacy in your work, I want to ask you about this quote by Toni Morrison that I love, and that feels especially relevant today: “We live in the world…the whole world. Separating us, isolating us, that’s always been their weapon. Isolation kills generations.”
In that quote, I hear two things. Firstly, as black people, we belong in the world, and the world belongs to us—there should be no barriers defining where we should feel comfortable. We belong wherever we choose to be. When, as a child, my family moved to a more affluent area, we were made to feel unwelcome by some of our neighbors. The message was clearly ‘you don’t belong here.’ In this quote, Morrison refers to this kind of ignorance and fear that can divide us from one another. Secondly, I imagine she may be referring to the isolation we experience as black people either because nothing is expected of us and we fail to thrive or because everything is expected of us because we have succeeded. Either way, we remain outside of a norm that has been constructed as white and male.
You mentioned your first encounter of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as a second-year fine art student, whose use of African imagery and representation of unabashed women struck you. These motifs extend to your work, Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018, where the woman figure confronts the audience while also being aware that she must negotiate a relationship with the African masked figures closing in from the periphery.
Encountering Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon as a student was a critical moment, as I was overwhelmed by how the figures occupied space, their posturing boldness, and the role of the African masks within the work. I identified with that fractured space, and I felt I knew those women. I felt that, in work, ideas about dangerous female sexuality were set alongside notions of the ‘dark continent.’ I knew that I wanted to explore this in my work from the standpoint of being both black and female. I wanted to explore some of the frightening, transgressive ideas about black female sexuality that I had absorbed growing up and set them against my lived experience. Initially, this led to a series of semi-abstract works in the 1980s featuring imaginary female figures using bold lines, collage, and distressed paper. When I revisited these ideas in Standing Figure with African Masks, 2018 I drew from life.
When you paint with your sitter, you engage in an empathetic approach, allowing them to take up space in a way that is reflective of who they are.
Although I never want sitters to adopt a position that feels unnatural to them, I often direct them to sit in a way that moves them out of their comfort zone. I often ask them to rotate their body either towards or away from me to create some tension in the pose as in Figure in Blue and Seated Figure on Yellow.
At the same time, your work is quite personal, as the sitters are either people you know or yourself. Do you ever feel vulnerable when presenting a particularly personal work?
I do sometimes feel vulnerable when presenting certain works. Much of what I do is intuitive, I don’t examine my reasons for making the works in the way that I do. It can be exposing when the work leaves the studio and enters the gallery space. The audience sometimes uncovers things that I didn’t realize were there.
Given the sheer amount of change in politics, culture, and the art world that you have borne witness to over the course of your career, I’m curious to know where you feel your practice is heading?
I am absolutely open to my practice changing and evolving. Although I love the materials that I have used for many decades, I am still interested in using new materials and moving out of my comfort zone. I have worked almost exclusively from life in the last decade or so. I’d like to find out what’s lurking in the recesses of my imagination. I’d like to think that change is always just around the corner.