Claudette Johnson‘s larger than life self-portrait, Trilogy part III, Red, holds us in her gaze. In front is Germaine Richier‘s La Feuille, a bronze figure stripped of markers of femininity, imprinted with debris from the forest floor, decayed, impoverished and dehumanised. This was a witness to two devastating world wars in the artist’s lifetime. Painted three decades later, Johnson’s images reclaim visibility and control for black women.
Richier died the year Johnson was born. Johnson is about my age so we have seen the same world through different eyes. Now, the 1980s, when she painted this, feels like a different, historical, world. “Lest we forget” is a much used phrase. We must remember the battles of the 80s as much as the previous wars. Last night I watched the film Pride with my 11 year old daughter. In response to detailed questioning, I had to explain what I know of the Labour Movement, the Miners’ Strike, how the hardship of that industrial conflict disrupted working class social norms and changed womens’ roles, the nature of HIV and AIDS, the death of activist Mark Ashton aged just 26, civil rights and the nature of solidarity across boundaries that has transformed our society.
I drew without structure, starting with the bronze. I find I have exaggerated the broad shoulders of Johnson’s image, emphasising their power. As I drew, the museum guide planted himself in my line of view to explain to a tour an art critic’s view on interpreting feminist art. He made it explicitly clear to me who he felt controlled the space. This was likely just accidental snobbery and rudeness, but it felt like found performance art.
The “Women Power Protest” exhibition is in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until March. It celebrates 100 years of universal suffrage and, importantly for the future, showcases what should be unremarkable, that BMAG’s acquisitions from female artists balance or exceed those from men. Dignity, Hope, Activism are the exhibition’s universal themes, building on the three colours of the suffragettes’ banner.