Liz Johnson Artur

Russian-Ghanaian artist Liz Johnson Artur opened her solo show “Dusha” (that’s “soul” in Russian) at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on January 17. The show, curated by CAM’s Chief Curator Wassan Al-Khudhairi, centers on an international collection of intimate photos of black people.

Johnson Artur is best known outside of contemporary art circles for the videos and stills she shot for a Fenty campaign by Rihanna this past August, among other commercial contract photography work. She shot the campaign in the streets of Peckham, London, showcasing transatlantic black aesthetics between Rihanna’s clothes and the grey skies of England.

In “Dusha,” however, what Johnson Artur highlights is not six-foot-tall hundred-pound models strutting in Rihanna’s designs, but the normalcy of black life around the globe. The photos on display here come from her collection “Black Balloon Archive,” which she has been continually adding to since 1991, after living with a Russian family in a predominantly-black neighborhood in Brooklyn. “Black Balloon Archive” is named for the Syl Johnson song “Black Balloon,” which includes lyrics about the joy of seeing a black balloon floating against a blindingly white sky.

“I have a very big record collection,” Johnson Artur told The American. “A lot of time when I go out and take pictures, it’s connected to music.”

The name itself came after she had already been adding to the archive for 15 years.

“The way I go about taking photographs is to go out and look for people,” she said. “There’s nothing connecting [the archive] other than my appreciation of meeting people. There was no agenda other than to go out and see what’s out there.”

The portraits in this show are of everyday people from Russia, London, New York, and other places across the globe. Johnson Artur establishes personal connections with her subjects before she photographs them, lending an almost casual quality you can see in photos such as “Untitled (PDA) 2018,” which shows a heavily made-up woman in a fur coat staring into the camera, as if the viewer is mid-conversation with her.

Often, she approaches her subjects as strangers on the street and asks to photograph them. “To this day I’m still amazed that people say yes, because a lot of times it is strangers I approach. And I get a picture,” she said.  “One of the things that I tell people is that I’m going to keep their picture safe.”

“Dusha” juxtaposes finished images by Artur with her sketchbooks – pages full of both notes and photo clips, giving the viewer insight into Artur’s thoughts.

It also includes two video installations and a sound installation. “Real…Times” weaves together various narratives from London’s many different communities. The video jumps between different storylines – a poet’s arrest, a woman speaking at a protest, a man in a museum, radio hosts dancing on break – which collectively give us a sense of the nebulous whole of Johnson Artur’s London communities.

“AfroRussia” documents the stories of other Russians of African and Caribbean descent, from a trip Johnson Artur took to Russia specifically to find others with her heritage. First, a reggae artist talks about his pride in being a revolutionary’s son. Then a young woman tells how her African-American father was invited by Stalin to help with agriculture after he graduated from the University of Virginia. Another woman talks about her college studies in public relations, and yet another shows off her house full of cats. They all speak of their parents, of the ways they feel connected to Russia, and yet to other places, too. 

The two video pieces make explicit a certain diasporic tension between multiple homes within one self. “I’m trying to accumulate something that in its presence shows the broad spectrum,” she said. “Because each person that I meet is different.”

Johnson Artur said she hopes that St. Louisans will see themselves reflected in her photos, even though they are from places where most of us have never been.

“I photograph something that is part of people’s lives,” she said. “I catch people’s memories –memories of their aunts, their uncles, gatherings, whatever it is. And it’s great to come to St. Louis because I’ve never been there but I’m sure that people will recognize things. And that’s in a certain way something that I strongly believe – that what I see in one part of the world I can find in another part of the world. If they can see something that’s on the other side of the world but looks very familiar, wonderful.”

“Dusha” will be at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, 3750 Washington Blvd., through April 19. Admission is free. https://camstl.org/.

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