If You Know The Beginning, The End Is No Trouble
Liz Johnson Artur – South London Gallery – 14th June – 1st September 2019
Review by Melissa Bennett
"The only way for me to understand why I took all these pictures... is that, it’s like when you start eating you realise how hungry you are... and when it came down to pictures... I now realise how hungry I was"
Liz Johnson Artur’s first UK solo show is a visual banquet. It features around 100 images from her personal archive of photographs that she has built up with a focus on the richness and complexity of the black British community in South London where she has lived since 1991. I arrived to an empty gallery, perfect for digesting a show like Artur’s that requires you to engage with the photographs from a number of different angles.
The layout has the photographs displayed on four bamboo cane structures of varying sizes and shapes. The images themselves are printed on a variety of different surfaces. Some are printed on photographic paper, some on cloth, some on acetate sheets and a number have been arranged into a book. The diverse ways in which the images are treated echoes the diversity of their content. As well as an eclectic mix of people in portraits and group portraits there are photographs of shops, streets and still lifes of artefacts, some of which refer to traditional African culture.
The first photograph-adorned structure that you encounter when entering the gallery is titled Library. Photographs, printed mostly on fabric, hang on what to me resembled a weaving frame. Artur states that "the library represents the heartbeat of the archive, it’s the place where I try to learn how to preserve my photographs for the test of time..." and in this section Artur has experimented with a variety of colours and textures. Some of the photographs have been printed on patterned fabrics, others so that they overlay musical scores. You are forced to work your way around the structure, focusing in on each piece at a time. The most striking images here are perhaps the African masks printed on African fabrics and the photographs of graffitied hip hop artists printed on striped cloth.
The second structure that you come across is Peckham. It is the largest structure in the show and Artur’s description of it as "a love letter..." could explain why this is the case. It was hard to know where to start or how to best experience these images. Peckham had four walls with pictures to see on the outside and within the structure. The images are of people going about their daily existence: school children, young people, older women at bus stops, a mixture of posed and more casual portraits. Altogether, the eclectic and chaotic arrangement captures everyday life on Peckham’s streets. Photographs of hair shops and barbers play a prominent role, emphasising their importance to the community as a service but also a place to gather and share stories. Not everything is simple however, Artur highlights that life does have its challenges; one section of images includes photographs of a police stop and search in a park as well as happier scenes of a cricket match and a smiling child in her school uniform. Artur shows the plurality of the black experience on the streets around her and makes a statement that everyone should be celebrated, from the hooded youth to the old man with his briefcase and walking stick.
The third structure, Community, is described by Artur as "home, weddings, churches and most of all people". This bamboo and cardboard frame contains images of worshippers and celebrants from a number of backgrounds. There are photographs of churches, mosques and of events including African Christian weddings and Islamic gatherings. Again the photographs were dotted with African artefacts and styles.
Women’s Corner, the fourth and final structure in the show, was a welcoming space where you could take time to sit and absorb the sights, but also the sounds of the exhibition through oral histories collected by Jad Onojeuro and Zezi Ifore. This section is described by Artur as "a place to feel welcomed, appreciated, warm and safe". This was true of both the design of the space, which consisted of a bench covered by a woollen blanket where you could flick through a photo book whilst listening to oral histories on headphones, and the photographic content which focused on women and LGBTQ+ communities. The oral histories included black women’s voices talking about the importance of Deptford and Peckham as African Caribbean communities and about their diversity. It was effective to have the oral histories and the book of photographs as a joint experience and enchanting to hear the artist speaking with a visitor about her photographs as you sat flicking through them. The woman identified some of the people and places in Artur’s images, tying them more strongly to the community that surrounds the gallery and its rich history.
Artur states that she has tried to capture whatever you can find in Peckham. However, I was left wondering if the photographs of fashion, technology, and hairstyles past also represented a Peckham past too. If Artur went out today in an attempt to capture the same photographs would she find it so easy? Have the people and places she celebrates in her images fallen victim to gentrification? As someone of mixed heritage who has witnessed rapid changes to communities across London, I felt a sense of loss as well as a sense of pride when looking at Artur’s photographs. She states that her aim in photographing the African diaspora in London was to capture "those who I don’t see represented anywhere". I wonder if in future these London communities will still exist to be represented? Will the place of such photographs soon be in museums and archives and not art galleries.
The show celebrates and draws attention to Peckham’s black community and the impact that their presence has had on the area. The way they have been shown has created an immersive experience that makes them more impactful and memorable.