Written by Sarah Roberts
Published on 2 July 2020
Burgess Park, 2010 © Liz Johnson Artur, Black Balloon Archive.
Artur has been named one of ten artists awarded with a £10,000 bursary in place of this year’s Turner Prize. Here, we revisit an interview with the Ghanaian-Russian photographer, about her expansive archive of Black British life
This article is adapted from an interview originally published on BJP-online on 18 June 2019.
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.
“I realised that I could take pictures, and through that, I could also learn how to communicate with people”
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. She 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. “And through that, I could also learn how to communicate with people.”
Today, Tate Britain named Artur as one of ten artists to receive a bursary of £10,000 in place of this years Turner Prize, selected for their significant contribution to British contemporary art. Although Artur has been living in London for the last 30 years, her exhibition at South London Gallery in June 2019, If You Know The Beginning, The End Is No Trouble, was her first solo show in the UK. It followed her first museum show, which opened a month before at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. However, the exhibition at South London Gallery was focused entirely on her work photographing communities in London.
“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 was 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.”