“We haven’t gone beyond tokenism”: Exploring diversity’s “now moment” with Liz Johnson Artur
In light of the renowned photographer’s work with the Southbank Centre exhibiting from December 2019 to January 2020, Liz explains why she doesn’t use labels and why some artists are introduced with a biography where others aren’t.
Liz Johnson Artur meets me outside a listed Oval estate with a wooden camel-shaped poof tucked under her arm. The brutalist high rise serves as the photographer’s home-cum-studio, towering over South London, a place and community that features heavily in her work. On a high floor overlooking the city’s skyline, Liz’s place is nothing short of wonderful. It’s brimming with stacks of records and books; an eclectic sunglasses collection lines the walls. Pinned onto them, Black and white printouts of African art are loosely tacked, a couple of the artist’s own images are paired against the curling pages.
As we rise up through the building in a metal lift, we talk of the significance of social housing in the city, and the increasing lack of it. The estate was birthed from utopian architectural ideals, complete with Henry Moore sculpture, library and shop. She’s been based here since the Grenfell tragedy, since her old council flat in Peckham was deemed unsafe in the fire’s aftermath. In the nearly 30 years she’s lived in London, she’s witnessed gentrification first hand. Not only through the glaring prices of the flats above and below her council flat, but also through her work. It’s a topic we start and end our interview with. Me, sat on the camel-shaped poof, Liz opposite.
And as the wind whistles through the window pane’s nooks, my discussion with Liz exceeds all expectations. With each topic discussed, from community to the way we look at art, Liz presents a profound opinion; a clarity developed from an analytic approach to photography. Over the years, photography has been a space for posing questions and resolving them. It’s for this reason that she encourages me to embrace a creative outlet, and as our conversation unfolds, I come to see things such as tokenism and marginalisation from a different perspective. She gently challenges the hegemonic line of thinking, one that went from guiding the interview to soaking in all that she had to say – from the way she talks about diversity’s “now moment” to her latest series with The Southbank Centre.
INT: First of all, I wanted to talk about the way interviewees usually refer to you. When I’ve read interviews with you in the past, everyone always seems to open with the fact that you are Russian and Ghanian, referencing your heritage in the first sentence, then introducing your work through that. Do you think that kind of introduction is useful for understanding your work?
LJA: My experience of growing up was more one of slipping into different boxes. When I grew up in Germany, I looked different to most of the people around me but at the same time, it was difficult for people to put me in a particular place. Some people thought I was Turkish, others thought I was American. So I’m used to being taken for something which I am not.
To answer your question, I always felt that whatever interest takes hold of me, I can go there. I never felt limited in terms of my identity, so sometimes I swapped. Sometimes I felt more German, sometimes I felt more Russian. For me, it’s not a fixed idea.
INT: Mmm, I can relate to that feeling. I was born and grew up here in London but people still ask where I’m from all the time. Recently I watched Lulu Wang’s The Farewell which I loved because it’s the first film where I felt I could relate to the protagonist. She was Chinese but grew up in the West, and displayed the nuances of having this cultural duality. Did you experience something similar?
LJA: I suppose that if you look for it, then you can find something. But because of what I said about feeling entitled to go to any culture, I never looked for the culture. I think the first Afro-Russian that I met was in my mid-twenties, so it was quite an isolated existence in terms of relating. But for me, there was never an issue of ‘who am I?’ as such, but more, if I can be this or that, then I can try this or that.
“There was never an issue of ‘who am I?’ as such, but more, if I can be this or that, then I can try this or that.”Liz Johnson Artur
In terms of identity, because I grew up with my mum and not with my dad, there were things that were lacking. I guess my work was one way of trying to find my identity. It was a tool that I used to get close to people that I didn’t have access to before. But I would never say that I looked for this part of my identity because it’s a multiplicity, and I liked that idea a lot.
INT: That’s a great way to think about non-white identity, as a way to creatively explore things, not just see it as a limitation.
LJA: Yeah, for me, it opened up doors rather than closed them. I never felt that because of who I am, I could not do certain things. Of course you have personal questions, but they don’t have to limit you in terms of what you want or where you want to go.
There are circumstances that help by being a woman. The definition of “being a man” is sometimes harder. My experience is that people could put me into all kinds of spaces, to which I could say, well, that’s not actually who I am. For me that meant, if you don’t know who I am, I can be anyone I want to be. But of course, I say this with hindsight.
GalleryEbony Horse Club, London is Love: photographed by Liz Johnson Artur and commissioned by Southbank Centre
INT: Wow. That’s so different to the way I think about identity. I much prefer yours. Can we talk a bit about your new work showing at the Southbank Centre. Your work is often about community and you really get that feeling in these new photographs; the energy, the togetherness. What drew you specifically to these communities?
LJA: I have to say, my work usually comes out of me going out and finding things. This project came about because the Southbank approached me and said we have this idea for a project about people in South London. They did a questionnaire and the public put forward people or institutions they find significant in South London, then we picked them from that list. Some of the places I knew but had never managed to go in, like Ebony Horse Club [a community riding centre in Brixton] which is just five minutes down the road. I pass it every day but never managed to go in.
What I liked about this project is that it didn’t just come from me; in a way, it was curated by the people. It felt natural to be part of it through the approach. It wasn’t contrived. Everyone involved was interested in showing the people of South London. I shot the pictures and we had a big meeting with the subjects to choose the final pictures together. Not everyone came, but the people who did engaged with the pictures.
Going back to my other work, one of the things I’ve realised since I started exhibiting, is that it’s nice to do collaborations, and this was an especially good one. Everyone involved, from the Southbank, to the people I photographed, all wanted to represent South London. That was the best thing about this project.
INT: When you work on collaborations, do you ever find that other parties see your work differently to how you intended?
LJA: This is the biggest project I’ve done as any kind of collaboration with an arts institution. But personally, with my background being in freelance photography, for magazines for example, the process has been very different. You take the pictures, hand it over to the art director and whatever becomes of it is out of your control. That process was important because I learned to maintain a certain control when it comes to my pictures and how I want them to be seen. But it wasn’t like that in this case with the Southbank work, everyone was focused on the people being photographed.
We’re not just putting a picture up because it looks a certain way, it’s because the person in the picture likes to be represented that way. When I’m working on my own, I have my own boundaries, where I stop. With other people, I open up those possibilities.
INT: When you were photographing this project, did you have a different relationship with the subjects because it was a collaboration?
LJA: No, because when I photograph people, whether it’s a commission or for my own work, my interest is the same. I want to take a photograph that feels good to them and to the place it’s been taken in. Why I say this is because at the end of the day, when I photograph someone, it’s about a certain reflection that I’m trying to create and it has a lot to do with trust, and people trusting me.
I’m not a street photographer, I don’t look for candid moments. I don’t just photograph people, my work is around people and I want a certain awareness for that moment. Even though people might not realise that I’m taking their picture, I want this moment to be more than something fleeting.
I’m a travel photographer, I travel to get my pictures, but once I arrive at the picture, I look at it in the same context as a studio shot. There is a focus from me because I work with film. I don’t really do any cropping so when I take the picture, that’s it. It’s a certain moment, it’s not just catching it, but actually stopping it.
“Taking photos of Black people is simply a choice that could have very easily been a different one. The bottom line for me is that I’m representing people.”Liz Johnson Artur
INT: What kinds of attributes do you look for in a person you want to photograph?
LJA: Of course it could be anyone, but I don’t think that’s humanly possible. What I do, in a certain way, is at the same place as when I started out; creating a body of work which can say something about human beings. For example, in my archive, I represent people mainly from the African diaspora. Taking photos of Black people is simply a choice that could have very easily been a different one. The bottom line for me is that I’m representing people. I’m trying to catch moments that I feel would be nice to preserve.
I look at photography as something that has its own life. I can’t represent people as human beings in the complexity that they are, but in terms of being seen, I try to accumulate work where, in the end, people don’t look at it and think, “Oh, it’s another Black person.” It’s about getting into the moments of where this person might be or what this person might symbolise.
These are all things that you start to say when you have to talk about photography, but when I take the photographs, it’s often spontaneous. Even if it’s composed, it’s something both the subject and I work on together. The person I photograph comes up with the ideas, and I’m happy to take them. But I am also a photographer so I look for my composition, my light, all those things come into it. Also, I have to say that I’ve been doing this for 30 years and have learnt this along the way.
INT: Is there a discernible difference between the way you photographed people 30 years ago compared to now? In terms of the kinds of people you look to photograph, perhaps, or a certain expression you want to capture?
LJA: Someone asked me this the other day. I was doing a talk at a college, and sometimes I start my talk by saying that I was quite shy and that it took me a long time to take out the camera and approach people. One of the students asked whether I’m still shy, and what I said then is that yeah it’s still probably how it is. I can still be that shy person but when I have the camera, when I want to take a photograph, I don’t think about shyness.
“I think for any artist to commit to anything political is a one-way street.”Liz Johnson Artur
When I’m taking a picture, I don’t always think, “This is going to be for my archive,” but it is. The urgency that I feel to take a picture in the moment makes me not shy to ask. Sometimes I do take pictures when people don’t realise it, but I like to be present.
In the beginning, there were hesitations with certain people because I didn’t know how to handle the situation. Since then, I’ve been in many situations, and I’m also very cool when people say no. If I ask someone if I can take their photo and they say no, I have a lot of respect for that. It’s good because if you try to convince someone, it wouldn’t be the picture you want. I totally respect that some people want to guard themselves.
INT: Going back to how you document communities, do you ever look back on your archive and think, oh my gosh, London has changed so much in the past 30 years?
LJA: I mean no doubt London has changed. But you know when you live somewhere, you see the change but you also live the change. The thing that happens in every city is gentrification, and obviously that does change an area. From my experience, communities are actually quite strong here. If you go into the back streets of Peckham, it’s still there. Elephant and Castle is very interesting for its strong Colombian community. I’ve seen it coming up over the years, but when I first moved here, there were no Colombian communities. How much they can actually take root, however, is a different question. [Pauses.] I’m trying to avoid being totally negative about change because it’s inevitable. But with London, a place that has changed a lot, it’s hard because of the extreme prices.
INT: And do you ever think about your work in this kind of activist sense?
LJA: I think for any artist to commit to anything political is a one-way street. Personally, a lot of what I do is embedded in the everyday. I can do what I do because I live in London and have that kind of eye level with people I see and meet. One can see that as political but then it’s very hard to pull politics out of anyone’s life. Particularly if you live in a kind of urban environment, or any environment really!
I don’t see myself as a political artist, I see myself as an artist who uses photography to pose questions. The Southbank project is a particularly interesting example. I see it point blank as, “Have a look at some people” to consider London in the wider picture. The appreciation of another human being is important in the context of living in a place which doesn’t have much space.
INT: It’s funny because after researching for this interview, I didn’t expect you to say that. Because there’s so much talk around diversity at the moment, coupled with the fact that your work often captures the African diaspora. So I guess my question is, do you think your work becomes over-politicised or over-intellectualised?
LJA: There is no real context where we can just talk about my work for what it is. We don’t have that context when we talk about other cultures – whether it’s Black or Asian or anything else that isn’t represented on a mainstream level. You know I never push my work out, and one of the reasons is because as soon as it goes out, I have to explain “Black”, which is really not what I was thinking about when I was taking the photographs.
“This is why I even take these pictures, because they should be seen in a wider context rather than in a narrow one.”Liz Johnson Artur
For me, other things are much more important and are the things that I want to bring out, rather than saying, “This work is about this group of people.” But we don’t have that context yet because as soon as people look at my work, they go for a social or political statement. I’m not pushing it there because, if anything, that’s why I’m asking these questions, because then we can start to see things in a different context. This is why I even take these pictures, because they should be seen in a wider context rather than in a narrow one. And that’s something that, maybe, in time, will come. Hopefully.
I’m not the only one doing what I am doing, and yes there is a certain “now moment” about work like mine, which I’m conscious of. But also I think, whatever it takes to move into this space where I don’t constantly get asked about the politics. There are all kinds of different ways to look at my work. I don’t think it’s so much me trying to push those boundaries, but maybe, by just putting them out there, more often, more people will realise that at the end of the day, we need a different approach to talking about work like mine. My thing is that I’ve lived in London for 30 years and I haven’t really seen the same thing that I’ve seen on the street, everywhere else. And I think you could say that about yourself as well. [Gesturing over with her hands.]
INT: Of course.
“People represent themselves. If you look at my work and it makes you think about particular things, then maybe you need to learn how to look at things.”Liz Johnson Artur
LJA: That’s what it’s all about really, to widen this conversation. I think it’s interesting that my work only came about recently in the UK. It only happened through some work I was showing in Berlin that a lot of curators from London saw. Sometimes people ask me, so where have you been? And I say, well, right here. It’s what you decide to look at. So if my work can stimulate that, then that’s great.
INT: In an ideal world for you, would you want interviewers to even ask questions in relation to race?
LJA: Well, my archive is both, it’s about the people in the photographs, but also the photographs. You know I really like photographs and I like them traditional, I like to shoot on film and I like to be able to go into a dark room and make a nice print. So that’s how I look at my work, as photographs, and I try to take photographs in a way I think will sustain the test of time and still make sense in 10 or 20 years. But, in a certain way, as objects, they are photographs and who they depict is important.
One of the things I recently realised is that people reference my work. I think if that’s something that people can take and use for their own conversations, then that’s wonderful.
INT: And what are your thoughts on tokenism? We see it all the time in the industry, if a curator is putting on a show for instance, and they need an artist of a certain background to tick this or that box.
LJA: I see it in a way where we — when I say we, I don’t know if I include myself, but I guess I do have to include myself — in a certain way, we haven’t gone beyond tokenism. Maybe we don’t have the language for that yet. We don’t put out shows where we happen to have five Black and Asian artists and not mention the terms Black and Asian, and just show the work. It’s that kind of understanding where we’re still lacking.
I remember being somewhere, and this curator was saying that when she does shows, there is an agenda. For an artist to have to be under an agenda, it’s a difficult thing. They’ll constantly be compared to the agenda, whatever they do. But if you look at art as a whole, how we classify different genres, it stands on its own two feet. It doesn’t have to reference anything except the fact that it is evoking something beyond human perspective.
Other artists will always be introduced with a biography, no matter what they do. In general, I’m an optimistic person, and the more you encourage these kinds of questions, the more something will move. That’s where I see myself. I do what I do, and when people ask me questions, I try to make the point that personally, I would be happier not to use those terms. I’d much rather be known as a photographer or an artist, not as a Black something.
You know what I said about being younger, and not feeling inhibited by Black identity? Well, that’s how I feel about my work, I don’t look at my work as “it can only exist there”. It can exist wherever I feel like putting it. I don’t push people to take it in a certain way but I won’t stop putting it wherever I feel like. And I’m going to try and take as many labels out of it as I can, I don’t use labels. People represent themselves, if you look at my work and it makes you think about particular things, then maybe you need to learn how to look at things.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.