Subjectivity and celebration in Claudette Johnson’s Prescence
Claudette Johnson: Presence is showing at the Courtauld Gallery, 29th September 2023 – 14th Jaunary 2024.
‘MUCH ART IS NOT EASY OR ACCESSIBLE. THE ART OF BLACK WOMEN HAS BEEN BURIED, HIDDEN AND DISGUISED.’ This was the opening line of Claudette Johnson’s short but strident statement from a pamphlet accompanying the 1983 exhibition, 5 Black Women. Curated by artist Lubaina Himid, who was herself an indefatigable champion of Black women artists in the 80s, 5 Black Women celebrated the shared though diversely presented concerns of Black British artists from the African and Caribbean diaspora. Johnson, though a recent art school graduate, had already caused a stir at The First National Black Art Convention a year before when outlining the potential of composition to challenge art historical depictions of Black women. (Incredulous of Johnson’s subtly radical ideas, a male artist had heckled her, which led to the surrounding audience erupting into noise). Undeterred in her approach to centre Black female subjectivity, humanity and autonomy in her artistic practise, Johnson’s statement for 5 Black Women redoubled this commitment in no uncertain terms. Employing capitalised typography in an explosive and empowering manner, she stressed how the art of Black women had been ‘BURIED’, ‘HIDDEN’, ‘DISGUISED’, how western images and ideas had ‘STIFLE[D]’ its truth, and how narrow-minded critics had failed to ‘FATHOM ITS DEPTHS’. Johnson’s statement was as unequivocal in its determination to celebrate the work of her fellow artists as it was in its denouncement of the west’s racist critique and erasure of their creative output. Hence, her convicting conclusion: ‘BLACK WOMEN’S ART CONTINUES AND EVOLVES…FOR THOSE WHO HAVE EYES TO SEE IT.’
Thirty years later, Johnson is still challenging the traditions of western art with her ever ‘evolving’ practise. In fact, her latest show, Claudette Johnson: Presence, is perfectly placed to interrogate institutional structures and the white imperialistic gaze that underpins them. Shown in the Courtauld Gallery, which is home to famous works by Gaugin, Manet and Picasso, the exhibition sits in critical dialogue with such canonical figures and the artistic movements and conventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But it does not do so at the expense of seeing and appreciating the work in its own light. For Claudette Johnson: Presence does exactly what its title implies and fulfils exactly what Johnson’s statement of thirty years ago set out to achieve. Featuring seventeen major works from across the artist’s career, the exhibition captures the powerful gaze, vision and presence of (mostly) Black female subjects, and gloriously and unapologetically transcends the once ‘buried’, ‘hidden’, ‘disguised’ state of Black women’s artistic expression from within the very institutional walls formerly denied to them. The exquisitely drawn artwork in Claudette Johnson: Presence remains, therefore, an ever evolving and elucidating sight ‘for those who have eyes to see it’.
But sight – that is, our sight, the gaze of the viewer, is of little consequence to Johnson, as her statement from 1983 makes patently clear. The gaze her work engages and harnesses to excellent effect is that of her subjects. How her female subjects see themselves, hold themselves, project a sense of themselves from the surface of the paper is conveyed through the direction of the gaze, as well as the subtle twists and dynamic turns of the body. It is not only the sight lines between the viewer and the viewed that are challenged, but an internal vision, an intimate intimation of how her subjects see, that radiates off the page. Take, for instance, her early triptych of three different women, all of whom look directly outwards to the viewer. Despite their gaze interlocking with our own, they do not so much mind or regard us, as convey and impart their own sensibility, their own palpably felt world. These are not solely portrayals about the politics of perception or the play of who sees more or less of whom – though they do teach us to ‘see’ again. Rather, they are works that redraw the attitudinal lines around the process and preoccupation of seeing, of what this could mean for the subject, more than the viewer; of what this always means for the artist over the critic. Although the making of art, specifically drawing, relies heavily on sight, Johnson’s work posits the multiple possibilities of seeing, whilst departing from the vision, the gaze of a white western art historical viewpoint. For her, the gaze and its radical envisioning of selfhood is something inherent to the figure represented and redeveloped in her works. Portraying the gaze, whether direct or averted, is thus a revelatory and liberatory experience marked out on the page, yes, for the beholder, but primarily for the beheld. What Johnson asserts is the assurance, the confidence, the directional push and pull of the Black female gaze, and how it holds all in its stead.
This process of seeing and unseeing is not predicated on portraying an actual figure accurately. That is, her work is not about portraiture in a socio-political sense. Moving beyond the traditional and art historical position of the portrait, Johnson, through the perception imbued in her roving and rhythmical sense of line, “sees” the person’s ‘presence’; she perceives that which lies within and draws out through her portrayals the mood, feeling, intention and essence of an individual. In this, Claudette Johnson: Presence embodies all the definitions of its titular overarching noun. Her subjects are readily ‘present’ before us – the drawings individually signify a ‘present instant’ captured boldly in pastel, paint and paper. Her subjects create an immediate ‘vicinity’ around themselves and are of and in themselves a kind of embodied locale of feeling. Her subjects are most certainly ‘impressive’ and of an ‘imposing appearance or bearing’; they are often double or triple the size of the model, photograph or imagined image from which they are derived and proudly project themselves into the space of the gallery, breaking the boundary of the framed edge. Exuding the ‘capacity to project or suggest inner strength, force of personality’ or that which is ‘incorporeal’, Johnson’s drawings present ‘presence’ in all its various faces, aspects and senses.
Trilogy (Part Two) Woman in Black (1982) conveys the nuances of the noun presence in abundance. Forming the crux of the triptych, the eponymous woman does not so much stand as stridently hold herself in the centre, legs parted, arms and hands confidently placed behind her head. The sheer openness of her body could render Johnson’s subject vulnerable, a plane of a figure to be looked on rather than to look out at us. But Johnson dismisses the possibility of this perceptual relationship by having the woman look coolly in command of herself and the viewer. She diminishes any outer intrusion by taking her cue from this assertive gaze and rooted positionality, thereby allowing the woman’s presence to predominate. Taking up the space of the frame, centring herself emotionally and physically, Johnson’s woman is an incarnation of strength and pride, a central figural tenet of unapologetic self-assuredness and self-consideration, an inner core for the surrounding two outer female figures who complete the trilogy. Exuding confidence, Woman in Black encapsulates Audre Lorde’s iconic quotation: ‘I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.’
Lorde’s quotation takes us straight back to Johnson’s desire to demonstrate the presence of Black women/artists throughout art history. If Trilogy subverts the religious origins of triptychs to make worshipfully sacrosanct the lives, sensibilities and bodies of Black women, then later works like the striking Standing Figure with African Masks (2018) take this subversion further, extending and enacting Lorde’s deliberateness through visual deliberations on the presence of Black creativity and female autonomy. ‘I am deliberate and afraid of nothing,’ is a statement of unmistakable and unremitting power; a declaration of permanent and persistent presence in the face of institutional erasure and failure, denigration and denial. Johnson almost literalises Lorde’s line in her works through compositional techniques and strategies (the same techniques which were jeered at during the 1982 convention), and, again, through the irrefutable stare and stance of her women. Standing Figure with African Masks exists on a deliberate diagonal with the subject’s upper torso at once twisted outwards, towards us, whilst her lower half faces the said African masks and figurines. Similarly, Woman in Black, though anchored like a cruciform in the midst of the triptych, has a provocative black line diagonally intersect and dissect the backdrop of the work. Both diagonal compositions heighten the dynamic and subversive energy of the drawings, but they also lineally underscore the deliberate presence of the women. I am here, both subjects adamantly speak: I’m here and I always have been.
Standing Figure with African Masks presents the indelible and undeniable presence of Black female subjectivities and bodily realities throughout history. Juxtaposing the living female form with that of the sculpted figurine and mask, Johnson sets up a complicated dialectic of nature and culture, of an actual Black woman and her representational counterpart. Faded almost to the point of appearing white washed, with a darker mask intercalated with lighter ones, the masks and figurines are dislocated from their original symbolism and purpose. They are reductive objects that come into contact with the irreducible reality of what they once represented. The standing figure, however, is palpable and fulsome, a vibrant persona, hand on hip and unafraid to confront this narrative of dislocation and misappropriation. In what is probably one of Johnson’s most overt political works alongside Figure with Figurine (2019), Standing Figure with African Masks not only grapples with the white imperialist gaze and the cultural colonisation of African artistry and design, but conveys, through its diagonal composition, the complicated position Black women, as artists and subjects, have inherited and can still find themselves in when it comes to westernised histories of art. When artists like Picasso, Matisse and Gaugin – some of whose work hangs but metres away from Johnson’s in the adjacent galleries – misappropriated African art, imagery and artefacts for their own problematic purposes and depicted Black women in their reductive and fetishizing works, where does that leave Black women artists working in the same formal traditions today? What do Black creatives in general do with this legacy? How can they disrupt it or depart from the blatant hostilities and conceptual supremacies engrained in such works without forsaking their own formal visions and mediums? More importantly, how do they reconnect with past expressions of their femininity, of their artistic and cultural presence, today?
Standing Figure with African Masks dares to ask such questions in bold, breaking and, yes deliberate, colours. Turquoise, azure, cobalt, crimson and an infinite blend of browns all announce the innovating presence and precedence of the titular figure. A traversing line of yellow separates a background of emboldening blues to indicate that this inheritance and historical relationship need not be one of pessimism and further disconnect. Rather, the interplay of colour and line, form and figure, galvanises and implies that an optimistic power lies in following, unmaking and remaking these connections between past and present. Within the historical formalities exist boundless figurative potentialities and subjectivities, if we continue to ask questions and notice where the former presence of Black women stands in relation to the present.
But presence unimpeded by the obscuration of the past is evident everywhere in the second room of the exhibition. Figure in Blue (2018) continues that synergy of colour and line visible in Standing Figure with African Masks. Standing with her back to us but with her head turned towards her shoulder, a woman emerges in quiet harmony, embracing this full and peaceable moment of self-contemplation. What is astonishing about this work is Johnson’s simple yet profound sense of line. In vitalising streams and ripples of blue, the body rhapsodically reassembles into a visual evocation of feeling, an immersive and impressionistic poem of what is taking place within emotionalised without. Delicately drawn against a backdrop of white, Figure in Blue breathes unencumbered by any accompanying detail or pattern, yet retains that charged sense of silent knowing also seen in Woman in Black. Eyes averted from us but gracing herself, the work creates a circle – a ‘vicinity’ as one of the definitions of ‘presence’ implies – of intimacy between body and self, between figured presence and that inner essence gently surfacing in Johnson’s blue pastel strokes.
It is in a blaze of roving, generative and generous blue lines that Claudette Johnson: Presence ends. Yet it is not an end, but a shift, a new beginning emerging or a complete emergence from a life-time of incredible drawings by one of Britain’s best figurative artists at work today. Blues Dance (2023), created especially for Dorothy Price’s superbly curated show, celebrates all these characteristic elements of Johnson’s practise: her daring compositional techniques and frames, her inimically exquisite and rhythmic sense of line, her embodiment of self-determined Black female subjectivity and the Black female artistic gaze. But the drawing also marks a transition into a more gestural, looser and layered employment of line and colour. Blues Dance does exactly what its title states: grooves in thick impasto blues against a monochromatic backdrop of softened pinks and greys. It choreographs a new feeling, a new world of energising emotion and self-realisation. Though the figure’s eyes are cast down, it is not out of sadness or dejection. Instead, like Figure in Blue, she is focused on herself; she is immersed in this moment of movement, in a fleeting sensation or sentiment motioning up from limb to limb, in the quick sense that something transformative, however slight, is happening. Though it vibes forward, Blues Dance also takes us back to the experimentation and the potent language of Johnson’s former drawings. It takes us back to the unapologetic and innovative representation of Black women and Black female creativity that she pledged in 1983 to bring to light through her own artistic practise. And it takes us back to the gaze that is ever felt, ever present, ever turned on the selves Johnson superbly presents to all those who have eyes to see.
Quotations are taken from Alice Correia (ed), What is Black Art? (London: Penguin, 2022).
Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief and general arts editor of Lucy Writers, and is currently writing up her PhD in English Literature (and Visual Material Culture) at UCL. She regularly writes on visual art, dance and literature for magazines such as The London Magazine, The White Review, The Arts Desk, Plinth UK, Burlington Contemporary, review 31, Club des Femmes, The Asymptote Journal, The Double Negative and many others. From 2022-2023, Hannah will be managing an Arts Council England-funded project for emerging women and non-binary writers from migrant backgrounds, titled What the Water Gave Us, in collaboration with The Ruppin Agency and Writers’ Studio, which has already resulted in an anthology of the same name. She is also working on a hybrid work of creative non-fiction about women artists and drawing, an extract from which is published in Prototype’s 2023 anthology, Prototype 5. Find her on Twitter @hhgsparkles and Instagram @hannahhg25.
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