Afro-Russian Photographer Liz Johnson-Artur captures images of Black people in Europe, US and Africa

Liz Johnson Artur, self portrait
It's the first monograph of Russian-Ghanian photographer, Liz Johnson-Artur. The self titled book 'Liz Johnson Artur' is a substantial restrospective overview of 30 years of work. 

Both black and white and colour portraiture feature from a diverse range of locations, from Peckham to Russia, US to Africa, The West Indies to Europe. 

Her primarily black subjects are captured without the usual 'music', 'sport', 'ghetto', 'poverty' and 'protest' labels which are still the norm in contemporary photography." (publisher's note.) The places in the book include, GB, US, France, Zimbabwe, Russia, Germany and Jamaica

Cover of photo book

Freelance photographer Liz Johnson-Arthur has worked for everyone from Sunday Times, Observer magazine, ID, Dazed & Confused, the Face, Fader magazine. Toured with M.I.A, Blur, Seun Kuti and Lady Gaga to name. And she photographed Amy Winehouse, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Moss Def and many other celebrities.

When people ask me about my background it becomes a long explanation,” explains the photographer interview in The Guardian. “I usually start by explaining how my mum is Russian, my dad is Ghanaian and I was born in Bulgaria...”

Mixed race people in Russia

After making contact with her father for the first time in 2010, Johnson Artur decided to start documenting the stories of some of the  other “Russians of colour”, alongside journalist Sarah Bentley.
 “Most black Russians I met in Moscow and St Petersburg had also grown up without their fathers. Some had been fostered or grown up in children’s homes and had never met their mothers. But we all agreed that we felt Russian as well as African,” the photographer says.

Afro-Russian girls in Moscow. Photo: Liz Johnson-Artur

Johnson-Artur is one of a small population of “Russians of colour” born to Russian mothers and African or Caribbean fathers who were offered free university education in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Her work on Russians of colour is featured in the Calvert Journal.

Pictures Black community in London 

But her photographic journey within black communities began earlier. Liz Johnson-Artur: " I started taking pictures  in 1991, the year I arrived in London leaving Germany. I was on my way to New York, London was  my stop over. Growing up in Bulgaria, Russia and Germany,  I didn’t know much about black communities in Britain.  

Growing up in Germany my access to black culture or communities was very much limited to black GIs. and standing in Brixton waiting for the bus I suddenly realised that I was in a place where all this could be explored. 
My camera was somehow a way of convincing people to let me in; there was never an aim or a strategy. All I wanted was to be let in – to look and learn. Running up and down the stairs at 123.

Rastafarians at the Brixton Splash Festival in London. Photo: Liz Johnson-Artur

In 2010 Liz Johnson-Artur exhibited 1000s of her photographs in London at a gallery and around markets in South London. In an interview with Sean Jacobs of Africa Is A Country she talks about making pictures of the black community in London. 

“Although i have been doing this for almost 20 years, I am  still intrigued. Showing the archive in Brixton market is a good way to return pictures to where I took them. People go about their daily lives in the market. 
So to see them take time out and look at my photographs, was very encouraging. Setting up a small portrait studio enriched the archive and also gave me time to record peoples stories. I am hopping to take the archive around London. Over the years i have covered most parts …”

Portraits made in the small portrait studio in London. Photo: Liz Johnson-Artur

Asked whether the mass media portrayal of black people in Britain has changed over the last 20 years, she replies.  “Your question on the representation in the mass media: I don’t see much change. The make up of the media hasn’t changed in my view and in order to represent you need more people who represent."

Documenting the African diaspora 

In 2019 Liz Johnson Artur had her first solo show. She presented new sculptural works incorporating photographs selected from her substantial archive of images documenting the lives of people from the African diaspora. 

Revive the art of storytelling

Liz Johnson-Artur and Jenny Gallego made the first film of a collection of photography and moving images which aims to revive the Art of Storytelling, encouraging members of the community to retell stories of their life. The film is named 'Shirley'.

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