Claudette Johnson talks to Ben Luke about her influences—from writers to musicians, film-makers and, of course, other artists—and the cultural experiences that have shaped her life and work.
Johnson, who was born in 1959 in Manchester, UK, and now lives in London, has created some of the most powerful figurative art of recent years. Working primarily in what she has called the “very small, twisted space offered to Black women”, she uses drawing and painting together in works that are bold yet sensitive, imposing in scale and intimate in their handling.
She subverts the conventions of portraiture in her dramatic approach to composition and pose and in foregrounding the figure’s presence in the viewer’s space rather than establishing the context in which they are depicted. As a result, she confronts the historic invisibility, distortion and denial of Black subjects, and particularly Black women, in art.
She discusses her discovery of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at university and how it has proved both inspirational and problematic. She reflects on the huge importance of Lubaina Himid to her early career and the recent resurgence in her work. She recalls the impact of Toni Morrison’s fiction on her subject matter. And she eulogises Paula Rego’s approach to pastels, a key element in her work. Plus she answers our usual questions, including the ultimate: what is art for?
• Claudette Johnson: Presence, The Courtauld, London, 29 September-14 January 2024
• Women in Revolt!, Tate Britain, 8 November-7 April 2024
• The Time is Always Now, National Portrait Gallery, London, 22 February-19 May 2024.
• She has a solo presentation at The Barber Institute in Birmingham, UK, opening in late March and is taking on a commission from Art on the Underground in London, scheduled for November 2024.
This podcast is sponsored by Bloomberg Connects, the arts and culture app.
The free app offers access to a vast range of international cultural organisations through a single download, with new guides being added regularly. They include the Courtauld, where Claudette Johnson has a major show in autumn 2023. If you download the app you’ll find that the Courtauld guide has sections on temporary exhibitions alongside in-depth features on the gallery’s collection. It includes detailed analysis of the displays on each floor with audio content on many of its celebrated works. There are also videos that reveal hidden details of nine works, including those by Parmigianino, Michelangelo, Turner and Seurat.