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Issue 222

Joy Labinjo and Claudette Johnson on Depicting Black Joy

The two London-based artists on why figurative painting speaks to our ‘shared humanity’ and how the personal is always political

BY Claudette Johnson AND Joy Labinjo in Interviews , Roundtables | 21 SEP 21

Joy Labinjo I want to start by asking you a question that’s often asked of me: do you consider yourself a political artist?

Claudette Johnson I don’t have a simple yes or no answer. I’ve always thought of myself as a Black artist in that my work is informed by Black experience. Growing up in Manchester during the 1960s and ’70s as part of the first Black family on our street certainly shaped me. By the time I was doing my fine art degree in the ’80s, I was reading a lot of African American authors who were writing about Black Power and the Black Panther Party, so the work is infused with that history. 

I don’t get asked this question very often, and I think that’s because my work reads as portraiture. If anyone takes the time to look at what I’ve produced over the years, however, they’ll see that who I’ve chosen to portray is itself a political statement. At the same time, I want to speak to everyone, and I think what is coming through the work is something about our shared humanity. 

Claudette Johnson, Figure in Raw Umber, 2018, pastel on paper, 1.6 × 1.3 m

JL Yes, and I think all people will relate to your work because, even when I couldn’t find Black people represented in art galleries and museums, I could still recognize a facial expression or a pose a figure was holding as something from my own life. Anyone who says they can’t identify with people who don’t look like them is just lazy. 

CJ Many of the figures depicted in your paintings are women: what role do women play in your work? 

JL When I was studying at the University of Newcastle in 2017, I started using my family’s photo albums as source material because I only had a few Black friends who could sit for me. Women were more often present than men in these images of the family unit. Now, I get my source material from a range of places – Shutterstock, Getty Images, Google Images, Instagram, magazines – and I feel like men, both Black and white, are becoming more prominent in my work. I unintentionally excluded women from the narrative and that’s something I’m figuring out how to work with going forward.

Joy Labinjo, Self Defense, 2021, oil on canvas, 2 × 1.8 m

CJ It makes sense in the context you started with, family photography, that women were the focus and then as you moved out to other aspects of life men would become more dominant. When I started making art, I felt that Black women were invisible. We were right at the bottom of the pile in terms of who has any power in the world so, for that reason, I made Black women my subject. But, in more recent years, I’ve been struck by the ‘invisibility’ of Black men despite their hypervisibility in some arenas. I’m concerned about the destructive stereotypes that continue to impact their opportunities and experiences. This made me want to open up my practice up to include images of men. In Figure with Raised Arms (2017), for instance, I had my 26-year-old son sit for me. As a teenager, he had been stopped and searched by the police. He and two friends had been cycling to Hyde Park. He was questioned and told he looked ‘suspicious’. I depicted him sitting with his arms behind his head, relaxed, with his face and chest filling the frame. The absence of any reference to status, location, occupation, and his centrality within the frame encourages – I hope – an unmediated encounter with him. 

JL Last summer, I made a portrait of a group of Black boys for the same reason. It’s called Enough is Enough (2020), and it was painted from a photograph that I took at the Black Lives Matter protests in London. I felt like I had to make this painting as a corrective to the media narrative that portrayed all the Black men at these protests as thugs. These guys, yes, they’re big, but they’re also very gentle. All these negative connotations have been put on them by everyone else. They’re just there inhabiting the bodies: what are they supposed to do?

Claudette Johnson, Figure with Figurine, 2019, gouache and pastel on paper, 1.5 x 1 m

CJ I’d be interested to know what role discomfort plays in your work. For me, a lot of my work in the 1980s was about breaking up the figure, dislocating parts of the body or having them completely missing. I felt that I was putting Black bodies together again in the work but reflecting the discontinuities in our histories.

JL Recently, I made the decision to explore this feeling more. Initially, I made works because I wanted to celebrate the Black family, and I just thought there was so much negativity in the world anyway. We can open a newspaper and see Black pain anytime. But then, when my work started to be read in a political way, and I became more aware of the demographic who were buying it, I just thought to myself: I’m not going to make it that easy for you. I will still make works about Black joy, but I want the viewer to be uncomfortable, which is the reason some of my more recent paintings are so direct and unnerving. 

CJ I find the way you create figures just tremendous: it’s as if you’ve taken a  photograph, scrunched it up and then let the destruction remain.

JL Your brain does have to do a little bit of work to put them back together. I remember when I was in my third or fourth year at university, a tutor said it looked like I was painting by numbers.

CJ Really?

JL I almost had a breakdown. [Laughs]

Joy Labinjo, Terrible, isn’t it?, 2021, oil and pastel on canvas, 1.5 × 2 m

CJ I had a similar experience of people dismissing my work when I was starting out. In my early paintings, I didn’t use any white, only primary colours, and I remember people saying it looked garish. I knew, at the time, that this was meant to be a very negative criticism – they were suggesting that my work lacked subtlety and sophistication – but later I realized that it was a legitimate approach that had power.

JL Same here. I knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Colouring Outside the Lines’, as part of a special series titled ‘Painting Now’.

Head Image: Claudette Johnson, Kind of Blue (detail), 2020, gouache, pastel ground, pastel, 1.2 × 1.5 m

Thumbnail: Joy Labinjo, Terrible, isn’t it? (detail), 2021, oil and pastel on canvas, 1.5 × 2 m

Claudette Johnson is an artist. Her solo exhibition at Hollybush Gardens, London, UK, will open in the autumn. In December, Johnson will participate in ‘Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 50s – Now’, Tate Britain, London. Her work is held in numerous public collections, including Tate, British Council Collection, Arts Council Collection and Manchester Art Gallery. She lives in London.

Joy Labinjo is an artist. Her mural Birthday Party on the Green (2021) was commissioned to mark the centenary of the Becontree Estate, London, UK. Her large-scale public work for Art on the Underground will launch at Brixton Underground station in November 2021. She lives in London.