Claudette Johnson ‘Presence’: Exhibition Review at the Courtauld Gallery

Student Lorna, half de Laszlo scholar for the autumn term, visited Claudette Johnson’s exhibition at the Courtauld gallery.

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Claudette Johnson prior to visiting the
exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld gallery. But not as embarrassed as I am to admit that I
can’t name a single other Black British female artist. The opening statement of the exhibition was a
reminder of the lack of representation of Black artists we still have in galleries today:

Speaking of showing her works at the Courtauld Gallery, near those of Manet, Degas,
Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, Claudette Johnson has remarked that:
“They are some of the works that first introduced me to the idea of being an artist; they’re
foundational, but they always seemed to exist in a space that excluded people like me…. I
imagine it will raise many interesting questions about what belongs in this space, who
belongs here, and who can find a sense of belonging here, in this building”

Born in Manchester in 1959, Claudette Johnson studied art at Wolverhampton Polytechnic where she
joined the BLK Art Group, an association of young Black artists seeking visibility within the
British art scene. She became a powerful voice for Black feminism and exhibited in pioneering
shows curated by Lubaina Himid.
The scale of the work exhibited – a hallmark feature of Johnson’s work – was really striking, with the
biggest piece of show (Reclining Figure, 2017) measured an epic 113x257cm. The vast majority of
her pieces were of Black women, with some later works of Black men. In a statement published in
1990, Johnson said:

“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’s presence. A presence which has been distorted, hidden and denied”

Claudette Johnson’s exhibition is on until 14th January 2024. Catch it quick!

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