Not on display
Untitled 1987 is a large drawing on paper rendered predominantly in soft pastel, with some areas of gouache. The composition is divided into three vertical bands of unequal width, each depicting a different view of the same woman. Her clothing and face are treated differently in each view, with varying colours and techniques used. For example, the face of the figure on the right is rendered tonally with only black pastel and one side of her shirt is overpainted with bright red gouache. In comparison, in the left section the subject is wearing a white shirt and set against an olive-green background, and her skin is depicted in full colour. The poses in these two outer sections are frontally static, while in the centre the figure is turning to her left and appears to be moving. Together, the three views present a subject that is complex and multifaceted, resisting the one-dimensional and stereotypical images of Black women that often circulate in Western society.
Since the early 1980s Johnson has become known for her larger than life drawings of Black women (see, for example, Standing Figure with African Masks 2018 [Tate T15143]). Her figures are monolithic, seemingly resisting their containment within the edges of the paper. Johnson describes her work as existing outside the realm of portraiture, creating instead a ‘presence’ for her subject that resists objectification. She has explained:
I am a Blackwoman and my work is concerned with making images of Blackwomen. Sounds simple enough – but I’m not interested in portraiture or its tradition. I’m interested in giving space to Blackwomen presence. A presence which has been distorted, hidden and denied. I’m interested in our humanity, our feelings and our politics; somethings which have been neglected … I have a sense of urgency about our ‘apparent’ absence in a space we’ve inhabited for several centuries.
(Quoted in Rochdale Art Gallery 1990, p.2.)
The subject of Untitled is the British artist Brenda Agard (1961–2012). Agard was a close friend of Johnson’s and had sat for her once previously (see Trilogy [Part Three] Woman in Red 1982, Arts Council Collection). Agard and Johnson were part of the same milieu of Black British women artists who often exhibited together during the 1980s. They were both included in the landmark exhibition The Thin Black Line, curated by artist Lubaina Himid (born 1954) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1985. Johnson said of Agard: ‘We shared a lot of the same political ideas and I admired her work. She had strong features and a distinctive look, she was a very dynamic person.’ (Conversation with Tate curator Laura Castagnini, 26 February 2019.)
The tripartite formal structure of Untitled 1987 mimics its unusual source material: three photographic test strips arranged in a row. These images were created while the artist was developing a series of black and white photographs that she shot of her subject outside her home in Hackney, east London. Rather than working from life, as was her usual process, Johnson used this row of test strips as visual reference while she drew onto a large sheet of paper taped to the wall of her kitchen. Consistent with her technique of this period, Johnson worked on this piece continually over a period of three months, building layers of pastel and blending them with her fingers. Her later work would combine this technique with expressive broken lines created with the end of the pastel (see Seated Figure 1 2017, Tate T15262, and Figure in raw umber 2018, Tate T15261).
Untitled was first exhibited in The Image Employed: The Use of Narrative in Black Art, an exhibition curated by artists Keith Piper (born 1960) and Marlene Smith (born 1964) at the Cornerhouse, Manchester in 1986. By this time, Johnson had known Piper and Smith for several years, after co-founding with them (as well as Eddie Chambers [born 1960] and Donald Rodney [1961–1998]) the influential BLK Art Group, which organised conferences and group exhibitions aimed at gaining visibility for young Black British artists during a period of institutional neglect. Untitled was later included in Johnson’s solo exhibition Portraits from a Small Room, held at 198 Gallery in Brixton, London in 1994.
Claudette Johnson: Pushing Back the Boundaries, exhibition catalogue, Rochdale Art Gallery 1990.
Claudette Johnson: Portraits from a Small Room, exhibition catalogue, 198 Gallery, London 1994.
Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.