An Artist Returns After a ‘Long Wilderness’

Kadish Morris (The New York Times) interviews Caribbean-British artist Claudette Johnson. She writes, “Claudette Johnson emerged in Thatcher-era England as a prominent Black feminist, only to fall into obscurity. Now, she’s having her first solo show in New York.” Johnson’s exhibition is on view at the Courtauld Gallery. [See previous post Art Exhibition: Claudette Johnson’s Drawn Out.]

In 1979, as Margaret Thatcher came to power, a collective of young Black artists based in the British West Midlands founded the Blk Art Group. Their goal was to amplify Black voices, critique their exclusion from art history and draw attention to the racism they experienced as children of Caribbean migrants in conservative Britain. Claudette Johnson, born in Manchester in 1959, and studying at Wolverhampton Polytechnic at the time, joined the Blk Art Group soon after its formation and began working and exhibiting alongside her fellow members Eddie Chambers, Keith Piper, Marlene Smith and Donald Rodney. “The Black arts community that I became a part of in the ’80s was invaluable. It gave me people to talk to about my work. It made me feel a part of a movement,” says Johnson. “There was definitely a belief that we were going to change things. That we were shaking things up.” But despite this fervent start, the spotlight soon faded and the group’s contribution to contemporary art became largely overshadowed by the provocations of the Young British Artists, the loose affiliation that included Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. “We just couldn’t fit in in the way the Y.B.A.s could,” Johnson says.

Johnson refers to the period between then and now as a “long wilderness.” In the early days, she had garnered visibility and acclaim — her seminar at the Black Arts Conference in 1982 is often cited as a formative moment in Black British feminism. But after participating in the exhibition “The Thin Black Line,” organized by the British artist and curator Lubaina Himid at London’s ICA in 1985, things started to quiet down. “That was the beginning of the slide into obscurity,” says Johnson. She had two sons, stopped exhibiting and no longer had a studio. Then in 2014, Himid invited her to be in a new show. “She said, ‘I’ve been thinking about the way you make your marks, and I want to see it again,’” recalls Johnson. Since then, she has re-emerged onto the contemporary art scene with exhibitions at London’s Hollybush Gardens gallery and Modern Art Oxford. At 64, she’s as successful an artist as she’s ever been. “For so many years, it wasn’t even a dream. It was beyond a dream,” she says.

Johnson’s approach to art making has shifted over the years, as well. “When I was younger, I chose pastels as my main medium because they were so quick,” she says. “I didn’t have to wait for the paint to dry.” But in 2021, when Johnson was commissioned to create a portrait of the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who had been an inspiration for the Blk Art Group and died in 2014, she began experimenting with oil paints. (“It brings me outside of my comfort zone,” she says.) Her intimate life-size drawings of Black sitters are spellbinding in their ability to be both affectionate and empowering. Her focus isn’t on creating perfect likeness but on capturing a feeling or a presence. “Often the heads are cut off, or parts of them are missing, as if you just bumped into the person,” she says. She isn’t overly political in her approach, but her works do seek to tell a more authentic story of Black life in Britain “Everyone can relate to an image of a Black woman,” Johnson says, “the same way I can relate to any of Whistler’s portraits.” [. . .]

To read the interview and to see photos of Johnson’s work, go to

[Photo by Ekua King: The British artist Claudette Johnson in her studio in Hackney, East London.]

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