Liz Johnson Artur: If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble

The South London Gallery, London


June 14th – September 1st

Liz Johnson Artur was born in Bulgaria to a Ghanian mother and a Russian father. As a child, she travelled much of Eastern and Central Europe, in part as an illegal immigrant. This lead to a fractured education and a unique outlook on life, spending much of her time sitting on the streets talking to strangers as her illegal status left her outside the education system.  

Her first experience living within the African diaspora was staying in a majority black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. The culture she experienced in Brooklyn inspired her to take up photography and gave her a lifelong interest in documenting the African diaspora.

Her passion for photography lead her through an MA at the Royal College of Arts, and then moved her into the world of professional photography. All the while she took pictures of what she saw around her: the African diaspora in all its glory. Artur documented everything from the mundanest chicken shop to the most extravagant wedding, all to put in her own personal archive. This archive is now on display for the first time at the South London Gallery.

In some senses, I think some may find this exhibition shocking. For some, this may be their first glimpse into the idea that a whole world has existed right beside them, and they never even noticed. It, I feel, may add some clarity to why black people have been talking about a lack of representation. It’s not about a black face cropping up here or there in a TV show, it’s about an entire culture, an entire way of being, that is going unnoticed in the eyes of the mainstream media. There’s a reason BlackPanther (2018) did so well, there’s a reason Skepta and Stormzy are dominating the download charts…

Perhaps that’s why Liz Johnson Artur has decided now is the time to reveal her deep collection of photographs revolving around the African diaspora. This concept of Africa and its many cultures existing in large communities around the globe can be hard to grasp if you’ve never lived amongst it. However, if you were to take a walk down Peckham Rye this afternoon, other than the abysmal weather, you could be forgiven you were thinking you were in West-Africa. The smell of the fish markets would fill your nose, the sound of West-African music would catch your ear, and, in every shop, you could buy anything from a new haircut to a used iPhone. It’s brilliant.

I’m guessing Artur feels the same love for Peckham; after all, she herself decided to settle here thirty years ago. Her current exhibition If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble concerns itself with giving you a deeper insight into the world of this African diaspora. Using a multitude of printing techniques to bring her analogue photography to life, she brings you into the beating heart of majority black churches, non-binary nightclubs, and, even the occasional rap battle. Her use of various materials to print on to, including cardboard and fabric, give the whole exhibition a very sculptural feel. Coupled with the large bamboo structure Artur has constructed onto which she displays her images, this is less an exhibition and more an installation.

Her work is a must-see, it’s not just her latest project, it’s her legacy. It’s what she’s been working on for her entire career.

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