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Claudette Johnson

Born, 1959 in Manchester. England

Claudette Johnson (middle name, Elaine) is an artist who trained in Fine Art at The Polytechnic, Wolverhampton, graduating in the early 1980s. Born in Manchester, Johnson is a contemporary of artists such as Lubaina Himid and Sonia Boyce, with whom she exhibited in several exhibitions in the early to mid 1980s. Johnson first began exhibiting with the Midlands-based group of art students and young artists that included the likes of Marlene Smith, Keith Piper and Donald Rodney. Later, Himid included Johnson in the Five Black Women Artists exhibition at the Africa Centre Gallery in 1983, Black Woman Time Now, at Battersea Arts Centre some months later, and The Thin Black Line, the important exhibition that took place at The ICA in London midway through the 1980s. Johnson’s work also featured in mixed gender exhibitions such as Into the Open at Sheffield’s Mappin Art Gallery in 1984 and The Image Employed, which took place at the Cornerhouse, Manchester, in 1987. In addition, Johnson has had a number of solo exhibitions.

A gifted artist with a marked ability to capture the personality of her subjects and sitters, Johnson has traditionally taken as her subject the image of the Black woman. In so doing, Johnson’s work is inscribed with bold attempts to both counter widespread negative portrayals of the Black woman and to combat what effectively amounts to their lack of visibility in assorted arenas. Correspondingly, Johnson’s work sought to create a range of depictions of the Black female body that were free from, or resisted, objectification. In her early catalogue statements, Johnson spoke eloquently about what she saw, felt and understood to be the Black woman’s specific experiences of racial and gender politics. According to Johnson, the Black woman suffered racism in ways that were different from the ways in which Black men suffered racism. Likewise, the Black woman suffered sexism in ways that were different from the ways in which white women suffered sexism. It was within the peculiarities of the Black woman’s space, framing and treatment that Johnson’s work germinated and produced such spectacular results. In this regard, Johnson’s work could be thought of as reflecting distinctly womanist, rather than feminist, sensibilities. (The word womanism was coined by American writer Alice Walker - in her book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens - as a means of discussing and addressing the specificities of Black women to which Johnson’s statements alluded.)

Johnson articulated her concerns as follows: “The experience of near annihilation is the ghost that haunts the lives of [Black] women in Britain daily. The price of our survival has been the loss of our sense of ownership of both land and body. The ownership of our ancestors’ bodies was in the hands of slave owners. The horrors of slavery and racism have left us with the knowledge that every aspect of our existence is open to abuse… This is reinforced by the experience of a kind of social and cultural invisibility… As women, our sexuality has been the focus of grotesque myths and imaginings.” (1)

Johnson’s women tended to be monumental in scale. Oversize drawings on heavy art paper, rendered in her preferred medium of oil pastel. These portraits were imposing pieces that demanded the viewer’s attention, as well as their respect. The Black women Johnson depicted were drawn from a variety of contexts. Some were friends or otherwise known to the artist. Occasionally, her subjects would be taken from photographs. Some would be drawn clothed, some unclothed, some would be young, and some would be decidedly elderly or matriarchal. Some would be pregnant, a testimony to the importance of the Black woman in giving birth to, as well as nurturing, successive generations. Some were taken from, or located within, Caribbean contexts. Some were clearly located within African contexts. And some were located within domestic environments. Some were rendered in colour, others in more muted palettes, or in monochromatic form. Some had bodies (and occasionally faces) that were, to varying degrees, abstracted; though for the most part, Johnson’s women were highly figurative in representation. And all were, in Johnson’s world, her sisters.

Occasionally, Johnson would fill her backgrounds with bold geometric blocks or areas of colour. But unlike Boyce’s depictions of women, (which tended to be highly decorative affairs, frequently utilizing equally decorative domestic environments in which the women were located) Johnson’s most striking women tended to be presented with sparse or plain backgrounds. It was as if, in so doing, Johnson was drawing attention to the beauty, strength, fortitude and essential character of the Black women, or perhaps more correctly, Black women in all their forms. In this regard, Johnson’s work perhaps finds common cause with work by other Black British women artists such as Mowbray Odonkor, Val Brown, and Lubaina Himid. Simultaneously, it also chimes with the work of the foremost African American chronicler of the Black woman’s story and image, Elizabeth Catlett. Johnson has, with great fidelity and empathy, sought to chronicle the lives of Black women and gallery-going audiences have had too few opportunities to witness for themselves the power and magnitude of her creations. Johnson has, as mentioned earlier, been represented in a number of group exhibitions. Within more recent years, these included Transforming the Crown, New York, 1997. One of her most significant solo exhibitions was at The Black-Art Gallery in Finsbury Park, London, while the venue was under the directorship of Marlene Smith. Its accompanying catalogue featured a fetching portfolio of images of Johnson’s women, an emphatic rebuttal to their perhaps wider marginalization, objectification and invisibility.

(1) Claudette Johnson, Issues Surrounding the Representation of the Naked Body of a Woman, Feminist Arts News, vol. 3, no. 8, pp.  12 - 14, p. 12. Quoted in Black Women Artists: The Politics of Gender and Race, part of a chapter, The Body Politic, in The Art of Reflection: Women Artists’ Self-Portraiture in the Twentieth Century, by Marsha Maskimmon, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 188 - 194, p. 189.

 

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