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Interviews / April 18, 2018

Hunger and Black Balloons: An Interview with Liz Johnson Artur

The Russian-Ghanaian analog photographer takes an ethical approach to issues of representation and archive


“the only way for me to understand…why I took all these pictures…I was hungry…but I didn’t know…that I was…it’s like when you start eating…you realize how hungry you are…and when it came down to pictures…I now realize…how hungry I was…”

I find this on the last page of Liz Johnson Artur’s self-titled monograph. On the cover is a black and white photo of a Black girl with kind and curious eyes, hair pulled back into a puffy bun and a daisy flower on her ear. The discovery of this book leads me to acknowledge my own hunger and pursue further intensive research on Artur, a Russian-Ghanaian photographer and archivist.

Artur worked commercially for decades, photographing artists like Seun Kuti, the Spice Girls and Amy Winehouse for magazines like the FADER, Vibe and Spin, sometimes touring with musicians like M.I.A. and Lady Gaga. Having grown up in Eastern Europe, where representations of Black people were almost always either negative or nonexistent, she focuses her non-commercial, artistic photography on the everyday experiences of Black people by capturing images of Black love, community and friendship. As a Black woman photographing Black people, Artur is able to strip away the unbalanced power dynamics of the authorial gaze and instead creates a humanizing subject-photographer encounter.

Artur was shortlisted for the 2017 AIMIA/AGO Photography Prize, in which she exhibited the Black Balloon Archive (1991–ongoing), comprised mainly of an analog photography archive of thousands of images that capture the lives of Black people and the environments that surround them globally over a span of 30 years. Artur rewrites Black representation through her practice: she walks, she talks to people, she takes their pictures and then she develops the images.

The artist conducted this phone interview about her artistic photography practice, representation, and the role of the archive from the home she shares with her husband and daughter in the United Kingdom.

Chiedza Pasipanodya: Your work has allowed me to envision how Black people can be photographed through a humanizing lens. I recognize efforts to reclaim our representation as a strategy for ensuring a level of survival. Can you speak to these ideas around rewriting representation?

Liz Johnson Artur: I think those ideas come out of a very simple need: If you don’t see yourself as who you are, and who you could be, then you always live under a certain cloud. I’m not trying to find anything that is exceptional; my needs are to see Black people represented on a purely everyday level. Photography and images are a strong tool and it’s important that these tools aren’t only used by certain people.

CP: Can you speak about the hunger you wrote about, and the creation of your monograph?

LJA: All together it took [my friend Bakri and I] about 10 to 12 years [to make the book]. I wanted the pictures and the people to speak for themselves visually. There was a point when we were finalizing the book and Bakri asked me if I could somehow sum up why I did what I did. This quotation was my answer to his question; it was something out of my gut. I was hungry to see Black people as people rather than as labels for this or that.

I’ve never felt like I needed anything but when I discovered [that hunger] I wanted to embrace it. So my motivation [to make photographs] doesn’t come out of a need, but out of discovering hunger.

CP: You have talked about not wanting to get too intellectual about your work because you find that sometimes pulls people away from the content. Historically, there has been this challenge for Black women artists whose work is often talked about in every way except intellectually. The work at hand and the rigorous intellectual and philosophical process that often go into the work are never addressed. You conceive of your photos as note-taking and, to me, that inquiry into this level of documentation asserts an intellectual process.

LJA: In terms of temperament and how I like to move, I like to keep light on my feet. The idea of intellect is a construct. It’s something where there is a certain formula and if you follow that you get acceptance. I can indulge in intellect but when it comes to my work–when I am engaging with people–I like to keep it where we can have an exchange and not leave people feeling that I have come to them [only as a subject of] a project.

CP: At the AGO exhibition last December that accompanied the photography prize, you displayed the Black Balloon Archive (1991–ongoing). Can you talk a bit more this project and how it came to be?

LJA: It began with an impulse–from a trip to New York in 1986–of trying to define what I have. I have so many pictures and because I’m an analog photographer they are physically there: I have to print them, I have to process them. On one side, the idea of an archive is of an accumulation of things and, in that case, I suppose every photographer has an archive. That’s just the nature of the beast. On the other side, I realized that I didn’t want to get lost in my pictures, I wanted to make sense of what I did because I didn’t really go out there with an agenda. Originally, I had gone out there to meet people.

The name Black Balloon Archive comes from a song by Syl Johnson called “Black Balloons.” The first line is something like “on one bright morning soon/ dancing in the sky you surely gonna spy up high/ a big ol’ black balloon.” For me it summed up what I do. It’s very simple: on a good day I will go out and I will find some black balloons.

In terms of the archive, it’s very important to me how I show my work, as is the integrity that I owe the people I have photographed. There is a necessity to my work because I work in analog and because I can’t have connections to everyone that I see. I want to make a point about the importance of each person in each picture. This has been an interesting artistic challenge. [I’ve learned] how to go somewhere and make sure that if there are 20 pictures, those 20 pictures represent 20 people.

CP:  Can photographic archives be an antidote to the common erasure of Black people?

LJA: One of the things [you have to think of] as a photographer is how to preserve the negatives. That’s a big issue. I scan my work but at the same time, it’s the negatives that are really the base of my work. I think it’s great that there are people who try to build something that will actually last. When [a body of work] lasts it also gains a different stature, it doesn’t just become, “Oh yeah, we have a little bit of Black representation in that part of the collection.”

I have always been intrigued by archives as places that hold. You have to do it yourself. I think it’s very important that if the interest is there, it’s not just given to anyone who wants [their archive] to be up to date. This is much more important than just being up to date; it is something that needs a real consideration. People from museums contact me because they sadly don’t have any representation [of Black people]. I am very reluctant to give any of my work to places like this, particularly if they don’t have any agenda other than “We need some Black faces in our collection.”

It’s important for human beings to show variety. It is very important to not see people as just one group. There is no one group: there are people migrating and setting roots in places [everywhere] and you have to see them as individual stories.

Chiedza Pasipanodya is a Zimbabwean artist, curator and writer living in Toronto. Her interdisciplinary practice is concerned with themes of liberation, acts of unearthing, and what exists in the in-between spaces.