Growing up in Germany, Russian Ghanaian artist Liz Johnson Artur spent her summers in the former Soviet Union. But in 1986, she received an invitation to stay with a family friend in Brooklyn. Deep in Williamsburg, long before it was gentrified, Artur found herself in a black community for the very first time.
“Up until then I hadn’t really travelled in any countries that had a black population,” she says. “Coming to Brooklyn was something I didn’t expect, but I realised I could take pictures of people.”
Over the past three decades, Artur has been taking photographs of the African diaspora as an extension of herself, seamlessly integrating the practice of photography into her everyday life.
The result is Artur’s ongoing Black Balloon Archive, selections from which are included in the intimate exhibition Dusha, along with two videos and a selection of sketchbooks. “Dusha,” which means “soul” in Russian, is at the heart of Artur’s work. As a self-described “product of migration” who adopted London as her home, Artur’s artistic process is her way of being in the world.
While Artur pursued her MA at the Royal College of Art in London and began working as a freelance magazine photographer during the ’90s, she spent her personal time capturing black life as it unfolded before her eyes. “There’s never been any reason other than I see someone I like,” she says.
“I’m interested in that moment and if they’re interested, I get a picture. Sometimes I talk to people; sometimes I catch them without them noticing. It was also important not to have an agenda. It’s very organic for me to relate to people and photography was my tool to capture those moments. I always try to keep it on that level, even today.”
The Black Balloon Archive takes its name from a lyric sung by the American soul singer Sylvester “Syl” Johnson, describing a black balloon against a snow-white sky. It’s a poetic image to describe the extraordinary beauty of life, free and unfettered by the constraints of society. An Artur photograph is what it is, without label or pretence.
“I want to show it is all out there,” she says. “I go to places everyone goes. A lot of times it’s a collaborative thing. I don’t direct people but I ask them and open that space for them to present themselves. Sometimes it’s good to meet someone without knowing anything about them. A photograph can set us on a course.”
“What is important when I show work is that people have a chance to both look at individuals and see it as a whole.”
Liz Johnson Artur: Dusha is at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, which is temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
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