The expansive archive of photographs captures the richness and complexity of black British life
Liz Johnson Artur’s Black Balloon Archive has been described as many things, from “a family album of the diaspora” to “a reclamation of black representation”, but the photographer is hesitant to define her work in these terms. “You engage differently with your own work when you live for so long with it,” she says of the archive that comprises photographs shot over the last 30 years.
Until recently, Artur’s personal work remained largely unseen. Existing in volumes of notebooks stacked on the shelves of her South London home, Artur’s photography career had largely taken the form of commissions for publications including i-D, The Face and Fader, and music tours with Lady Gaga and MIA. While away shooting these projects, Artur would photograph black communities across the globe, none of which were published until she released an untitled monograph of her work in 2016.
Born to a Russian mother and Ghanaian father, Artur spent her early years growing up between Bulgaria, where she was born, Russia, and Germany. In 1985, aged 21, she received a camera during a trip to New York, where she was staying with a Russian family. They lived in a black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and for the first time, Artur found herself surrounded by a diverse community that she had not experienced in Eastern Europe. Artur began to photograph the people she saw around her, fuelled by a “hunger” to connect to her roots. “I realised that I could take pictures,” Artur says in an interview with BJP-online. “And through that, I could also learn how to communicate with people.”
Although Artur has been living in London for the last 30 years, her exhibition at South London Gallery, entitled If You Know The Beginning, The End Is No Trouble, is her first solo show in the UK. It follows her first museum show, which opened last month at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. However, her exhibition at South London Gallery is focused entirely on her work photographing communities in London.
“The way the work is being shown is completely new,” says Artur of the exhibition, which uses unconventional methods of display, from experimental printing techniques on fabric, tracing paper and cardboard, to a series of four bamboo cane structures that each host a different section of the exhibition. The exhibition is split into four thematic sections: Peckham Rye, black-majority churches, non-binary club nights, and a still life section called Library.
“When the opportunity came up to show at South London Gallery, I felt like my pictures should just become a backdrop for the things that were actually going on in South London,” says Artur, “because that’s what my work is really about.” The exhibition has been designed to act as a flexible backdrop for an integrated programme of events, inviting other artists to contribute music, poetry, dance and theatre to the space, and encouraging intergenerational collaboration. “I wanted to share the space,” she says. “For a long time, there weren’t many opportunities to show this kind of work, particularly not in a gallery or museum context. The presence of minorities in institutions like South London Gallery is important – it lets us gain some kind of common ground.”
Artur’s work resists definition. To define it would go against the very thing it sets out to achieve; to record the normality of black lives, and the richness and variety of black culture, against the stereotypes and appropriation that permeate the mainstream. Artur works according to instinct. She does not overthink the photographs she takes, rather she captures the vibrancy and sense of community as and when she encounters it. By using the exhibition to create a space for the very community she photographs, Artur’s archive comes full circle. “When you come to the gallery, you’ll be in the presence of black London,” she says. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Liz Johnson Artur: If You Know The Beginning, The End Is No Trouble is on show at South London Gallery, from 14 June to 01 September 2019