Kaleidoscope: Q&A with photographer Liz Johnson Artur

Kemi Alemoru

30 Aug 2019

Liz Johnson Artur sits down with writer Kemi Alemoru to unpick the complexities of making art that centres around the diaspora. Her film Real...Times features in the exhibition Kaleidoscope: Immigration and Modern Britain.

Upon reaching Liz Johnson Artur she's filling in some US Visa forms to prepare for a journey to America. It’s fitting she’s struggling to get through papers to embark on another journey and pass through another border and boundary to show her work to a new audience as her art is currently showing at Kaleidoscope, an exhibition chronicling the narratives of Brits who are the product of migration. Moving from culture to culture, is what Artur has become known for, using her lens as a window into the world she stumbles upon. She's captured the captivating elements, and exhibited the ordinary moments, from black communities for the last 30 years.

Her video Real...Times includes South London DJ collective Born n Bread, a young artist named Emmanuel, an arrest on Brixton’s high street, and a Windrush demonstration. “We will not be divided, we matter, we have a right to be here,” shouts the woman leading the protest. While these words stir the crowd, it also sums up how Artur positions her subjects. “There's so much beauty in the communities of the diaspora,” explains the 55-year-old artist. “Yet it isn't preserved in the way I would like and sometimes it feels like in order for it to be done in the right way it needs to be in our hands.”


Real...Times © Liz Johnson Artur

You usually work with photography so how did this film come about?

The reason why I made this video is because I had a show last year in Berlin. I was invited to the Biennale, and I wanted to bring London to Berlin. I’ve started to see video as an extension of my photographic work, and I approach it in a similar way. I had three months to find connections in the stories that I encountered and people that I meet. These are groups in London that people only talk about when there's a stabbing or there's a social problem that hits a headline.

What is your approach to your work? Why did you include young radio hosts alongside black activism and humiliation?

My approach is just to take my camera around with me. That arrest actually happened on the same day I went to the Windrush demonstration in Brixton when I was walking back to the tube station. If you walk around London, and you keep your eyes open, these are the things you encounter. I was really impressed with how the man handled the situation, it was obviously on his home ground, the woman who approaches him was a friend or neighbour and it's a very humiliating situation for a human being. They thought he was nicking his own bike and they waited until he was in the centre of Brixton to make this arrest. I was trying to show what it looks like to be exposed to this without me judging him or saying he is right or wrong. Did it need to be done in that way? I weave all of these things together because they're all a part of London’s story.

Real...Times © Liz Johnson Artur

This exhibit collates a group of artists who are the product of migration. You were born in Bulgaria and have Russian Ghanaian roots. Do these influences change the subject of your work?

To me being an immigrant is the natural state. This is who I am, but I am also the sum of a lot of things. I have the right to choose London because migration is a part of human existence. That space to be a human being is being taken away from a lot of people and I see my work as a way as investigating or exploring it.

Do you ever feel a pressure to create art along the lines of your identity?

I've been doing this for so long, but I do think that certain things had to be in place for my work to have a wider reception. If I think about London in the 90s, I would not have an exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum, or the South London gallery, and so on. There's a conversation going on at the moment why my work is suddenly interesting to institutions.

What needs to change is when the first question people have to ask me about my work is my background. My work is not autobiographical but when it is asked, it's a matter of positioning me. I don't read that about every artist.

Real...Times © Liz Johnson Artur

How do you feel like immigration should be handled in the art world?

Well, it's a topic that needs to be spoken from many different perspectives. Somewhere in all of our histories there is migration. I am happy to contribute to it, the only reason there would be an issue with it is if this is the only reason why my work was shown. The fact that I have exhibitions here and there is great, but to find my acceptance as an artist I want to focus on my art. I photograph people, they happen to be black. My work can be viewed in so many contexts, and for so long I held back because I feared that the only conversation people would have about it, was that my archive is for black people.

It is an act of love to find the nuances within underrepresented groups and deem them worthy of documenting. You're looking at creatives, you're looking at joy as well as being a fly on the wall.

It's almost a resource material. When I photograph there is a documentary element but it is also very much something that I enjoy. I want to meet people and see different things - taking a photograph allows me to do that. I try to get inside the cultures and moments that I capture, I want to look people in the eye and take the picture in the way they would like to be seen. All I hope is that I catch as much as I can and that one of these pictures touches someone.

Interview by Kemi Alemoru

Kemi Alemoru is the Features Editor at gal-dem, an online magazine and media platform run by women and non-binary people of colour. She has a penchant for youth and pop culture and seeks to analyse the deeper meanings in the media we consume. She worked for several years at Dazed magazine and since then her byline has appeared in The Guardian, Time Magazine, BBC, Riposte, and Vice. Additionally, in the last year she was contributed written essays to two published books, Mother Country: Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, and gal-dem's anthology, "I will not be erased": Our stories growing up as people of colour. Besides writing she's fulfilled her passion for talking via her current affairs show on Balamii, interviewing for documentaries for Dazed and NTS, hosting a show on Somerset House Studios, and appearing in a video for BBC 3.