Liz Johnson Artur’s Vibrant Chronicle of the African Diaspora
There is so much sound, movement, and energy in Liz Johnson Artur’s first solo museum show, “Dusha,” at the Brooklyn Museum, that walking through the galleries feels like attending a party at a local Pan-African community center. The exhibit showcases Artur’s “Black Balloon Archive,” which consists of images of the global African diaspora captured in the course of decades. Here are two boys spinning each other on the sidewalk, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Nearby is Brother Michael, in a black suit and white tie, selling Nation of Islam newspapers. A group of women show off their matching head wraps, and precocious school girls relax outside a classroom. A man wearing Ankara prints and sunglasses mugs for the camera. All that is missing is the line for jollof and the music of Fela Kuti.
For Artur, the show marks a homecoming of sorts. Born in Bulgaria, to a Russian mother and a Ghanaian father, she was raised by her mother, in Germany. In 1986, she took her first trip west, to Brooklyn, where she lived with Russian family friends in a predominantly black neighborhood. She had just gotten her first camera, and when she arrived she began taking pictures of the communities she encountered. “Photography gave me a chance to enter places that I didn’t know how to enter,” Artur said, on a guided tour of the show on a recent Saturday. She began studying photography when she returned to Germany, and later enrolled in an M.A. program at the Royal College of Art, in London. Settling in the city, she did freelance photography work for magazines through the nineties, touring with musicians around the world. Still, she said, she “wanted to record the normality of black lives and black culture,” a thing she recognized was sorely missing from mainstream culture. At home and abroad, she would sneak away from her commercial gigs to make her own work.
Artur gives the scenes in her “Black Balloon Archive” no titles or dates, nor any clue to their locations; her subjects are simply of the African diaspora, a community united not by place or time but by a shared history of creating new life inspired by old traditions. On the gallery tour, she told the story of the Bayeux Tapestry, an eleventh-century artifact depicting scenes of English life during the conquest of William Duke of Normandy, which she said is one of the earliest artistic representations of common people. Her own reimaging of that work, “London Tapestry, 2018,” consists of rows of scenes from the lives of African men and women in London, stitched into fabrics that stretch over five feet wide. The effect is to transform the city, which had an outside role in the African slave trade, into a London of proud, triumphant black faces, living everyday moments—barbershop visits, weddings, relaxing in the park—forged on a tradition of resilience and resistance.
“Dusha” (the name means “soul” in Russia) contains some framed photos mounted on the wall, but Artur often prints her images on newspaper, linen, leather, felt, or even sheet music, and she prefers to collect them in sketchbooks or sheafs that can be flipped through. Like the act of taking pictures, sharing these physical artifacts is a way of getting close to the diasporic communities she’s photographing. “I have a picture; you come and see me; I tell you a story,” she said of her approach. In the museum, these books of pictures sit on a long rectangular table, their vibrant scenes protected beneath a sheet of glass. But, Artur said, “It is the museum that says, ‘Don’t touch,’ not me.”