The Contemporary Art Society has acquired a photographic installation by Ghanaian-Russian photographer Liz Johnson Artur, who has been working in London since the early 1990s. Her work has documented the lives of Black people from across the African Diaspora, with her recent photographs focusing on Black British communities in Peckham and Brixton, South London.
Top Shelf, acquired for Guildhall Art Gallery, London, comprises 20 prints from Johnson Artur’s large and diverse oeuvre. Inspired by the gallery’s collection, Johnson Artur chose to window mount and frame the prints as one complete piece, creating a contemporary take on the 19th century salon hang of the gallery’s permanent Victorian collection displays.
Top Shelf interweaves different diasporic narratives, highlighting family, love and friendships, whilst also exploring the nuances of Blackness. Through her well-observed, tender and empathetic images, Johnson Artur not only documents the everyday lives of Black people, but also subtly draws attention to and challenges perceptions of Black communities in the popular imagination. Images of men with children confront the trope of the absent Black father, whilst the image of a man in drag on a night out raises the subject of being LGBTQI+ within the Black community.
Top Shelf speaks of the ordinary and everyday; it is a vivid portrait of what life is really like in parts of the capital. Whilst the people in the photographs are strangers, they seem familiar, and although Johnson Artur’s work exclusively documents Black communities, the photographs resonate with anyone who knows London. This is the first work of Johnson Artur to enter a UK public collection and the acquisition also marks an important moment for the gallery as she is the first female artist of dual heritage to be represented there.