Liz Johnson Artur, Women’s Corner, 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Liz Johnson Artur, Women’s Corner, 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Liz Johnson Artur

Over the past three decades, photographer Liz Johnson Artur has been amassing a body of work she calls the “Black Balloon Archive,” ca. 1991–, focused on the African diaspora. The Russian-Ghanaian artist’s first UK solo show, “If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble,” focused on London, with a particular emphasis on the South London area of Peckham, home to a large black population. The installation raised questions around the relationship between art and social life in a context of urban gentrification. While the density of interactions on offer seemed emblematic of the city at large, one could sense a tension between the general drive toward fetishism in ethnographic work and the resistant force of marginalized life in all its aesthetic beauty.

The exhibition was split into four sections by scaffold-like bamboo structures, housed in one large, airy room. It began with a section of photographs called Library (all works 2019), which ran from what seemed to be a set of colonial-era anthropological images to a collage-driven, almost kitsch set of contemporary prints. The variety of printed materials, including felt and leather, heightened a sense of touch, like a history of feeling, in the archive. A cultural studies practice seemed to be at play, with a colonial narrative of anthropology as a classification system seeking to dominate and control being turned against its own purposes, making the passive black subject into the active producer and adding historical weight to contemporary gentrification narratives.

The central section, titled Peckham, consisted of a large array of images focused on the area’s domestic, work, and street life. Settings included hair salons, boxing clubs, bus stops, parks, and stalls selling clothing. The photographs were produced in a wide variety of styles, from high-definition cinematic shots to faded, semivernacular images evoking a familiar and comfortable feeling. The lack of any clue as to the provenance of individual pieces, while aiding with the social and aesthetic flow, raised questions: Were these recent shots specifically made to evoke a vintage feel, or genuine fragments of social and photographic history? There was clearly a critical mass of sociality in motion, something that continued in the Community section, which focused on function halls and black churches.

The last section, Women’s Corner, described in the exhibition handout as “. . . a place . . . to feel welcomed . . . appreciated . . . warm . . . and safe,” was perhaps the most puzzling. Portraits of many nonbinary performers and patrons from club nights such as London’s PDA were put awkwardly together with a hair sculpture, while oral histories of local black women could be heard on a headset. These latter two pieces—produced in conjunction with local artists and women—seemed to paint a different picture of black urban life than had been detailed to this point. The juxtaposition with young queer culture seemed forced and undeveloped. Perhaps “women” here were being read as already queered—found under discourses of femme?—but the juxtaposition lacked proper historicization.

The interface with club subculture continued in the exhibition’s event program with performances by many black artists, such as Cõvco, Nkisi, and Ms. Carrie Stacks. However, the abstraction of a social happening into an aesthetic legible to a larger public raised uncomfortable issues around appropriation and gentrification, especially these days, when nightlife venues seem to be shutting down all over London. The social history began to lose its radical edge, feeling like an add-on to the installed artwork. The collective self-conscious move by queer, racialized performers and practitioners into art spaces may be a pragmatic strategy for a social grouping to seek opportunities by expanding the ambit of their work within a hostile environment. Artur’s desire for an aesthetic sublime produced with, from, and by this same marginalized social group seemed to be perpetuating a stratified class dynamic that is ever present in art and gallery contexts, itself tied into larger circuits of global capital. If a liberatory aesthetic is to be formed, it must be able to evade political and economic capture; we are not there yet.