“What I do is people. Those people who are my neighbours. And it’s those people who I don’t see represented anywhere”. This is how Liz Johnson Artur describes the focus of her photographic practise. The Russian-Ghanaian artist, who grew up in Germany before moving to London in the early 1990s, has been documenting the life of the African Diaspora in London and across the world for more than three decades.
She calls her ongoing photographic project Black Balloon Archive, referencing a 1970s song by Syl Johnson that describes a black balloon ‘dancing’ in the sky, which is how Artur imagines her own movement when taking photographs of the people around her.
If You Know the Beginning, The End is No Trouble is currently on view at the South London Gallery and is Artur’s first solo-show in the UK. It features around 100 images from her substantial archive of photographs that she retains, without chronologic order, in files and notebooks in her studio. The photographs in the show focus specifically on the richness and diversity of the Black British community in South London and are arranged thematically on four bamboo cane structures.
Library, next to the entrance, presents still life images taken from the wealth of reference books, vinyl records and magazines that the 55-year-old photographer keeps in her London studio.
In the centre of the exhibition space, Peckham focuses on everyday life in South London Gallery’s neighbourhood, showcasing images of teenage girls standing in front of a shop window, scenes from a rave or two policemen stopping and searching a young man in a park.
Community displays photographs of various religious gatherings, for example a Nigerian and an Ethiopian wedding party or worship scenes from black-majority congregation churches.
The back of the gallery includes Artur’s most recent work, which celebrates people from London’s Black LGBT+ community. The Bamboo structures will, over the course of the exhibition, form a backdrop for a series of talks, events, performances and music gigs by invited artist, including the recording of women’s oral histories.
Artur, who studied photography at the Munich Art Academy and at the Royal College of Art shoots exclusively on analogue film. The different facets of black life she relentlessly captures with her camera are also reflected in the artist’s diverse and experimental treatment of the photographic image itself. The photographs in the exhibition come in various sizes and are printed in black and white or colour, on fabric, Acetate sheets or paper. She also uses these different techniques in the workbooks she has regularly made since she picked up a camera, so If You Know the Beginning, The End is No Trouble can be seen as an expanded version of her ongoing photographic journals.
Artur’s well observed, tender and empathetic images not only document the everyday lives of Black people, but also subtly draw attention to and challenge perceptions of Black communities in the popular imagination. Her deeply intimate Black Balloon Archive initially started from her personal desire to connect with people from the Black community around her. She now sees her work as representing a perspective that is “missing when it comes to representing and occupying common ground.”
Overall, the exhibition is suggesting a powerful continuum of London’s Black community and an ongoing creative energy that can’t be put to a halt. The exhibition is a vivid portrait of what life is really like in parts of the capital. Whilst the people in the photographs are strangers to the viewer, they seem familiar at the same time, and although Artur’s work exclusively documents diasporic life of London’s Black communities, the photographs resonate with everyone who knows London.
Come to South London Gallery, see this poignant and moving exhibition, then afterwards take a stroll through the neighbourhoods of Peckham to experience where the photographs were actually made.
We will be continuing to beaver away here at the Contemporary Art Society over the summer, but this shall be our last dispatch of the season. We wish you fantastic summer holidays and we shall start the dispatches again in September.
South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11.00-18.00. Exhibition continues until 1 September 2019. www.southlondongallery.org