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London is Love reflects "the whole of London, even thought it's taken in the south", explains Russian-Ghanaian photographer Liz Johnson Artur. Even after her Brooklyn-based project Black Balloon Archive explored and examined the realities of the American black diaspora, Johnson Artur still feels like London is her "place". South London British identity, community and culture are displayed and celebrated in the Royal Festival and Queen Elizabeth halls of the Southbank Centre with an overwhelming charm and visually remarkable artistry.

Under 18s Rave | Liz Johnson Artur

Liz's story is just as remarkable as her photography: born in Bulgaria and raised in West Germany from the age of five, she only came to London in 1991. "I knew nothing about it," she says. "I wasn’t into The Beatles, all I’d heard was how bad the weather was, so it wasn’t an attractive place in my mind. I saw it as a stopover... I wanted to go to America.” Luckily, she stayed on, and readily accepted when the Southbank asked her to collaborate on a series of photographs that would capture the spirit of South London. "I like to use my work to tell stories," she says of the 40 photographs on display at the Centre. "Whether it’s in a space or in a book."

Her mastery of capturing a natural narrative is intensely present in London is Love: there is movement and manoeuvre in every image, where every gesture tells a story and every motion completes a character. "A lot of times when I ask someone if I can take a picture, I have to be ready." she says. "I want things to be right; it is about the person and about creating that space around when their presence is the presence I think they deserve. I’m trying to hold on to all the backdrop, light, composition, and then leave space for someone to do their own thing." At this, she most resoundingly succeeds: from the young girls learning horseback in Peckham to the party-goers parading around Brixton to the performers dancing at The Chateau in Camberwell, every portrait gives space for the subject to tell their own story.

Despite this penchant for the appraisal and presentation of identity, Johnson Artur does not feel that her own background is of any relevance to her work: "When people write about my work they have to write about my background, and I actually find it irritating in a certain way." she quips. "I don’t like being pushed into a corner where I am told that this is my narrative and this is my subject. Because I don’t work with a subject — I photograph human beings. Yes, most of the people in the archive are black but my archive is much bigger than that. For me, these stories are not connected to who I am. They’re just the things I see."

But that doesn't mean she shies away from the impact of representational politics: "The people helped to pick the works they feel represented by, which is good." she smiles. "There was this book for people to leave feedback in at my last exhibition and many of the visitors wrote that they felt seen, which made me very happy." Her work with artists like Rihanna for her Fenty campaign further demonstrate a keen awareness of - and desire for - artistic visibility within the communities that she has grown to love. The cultural identity of South London is so vividly adored in Love is London as its' purveyors are pictured with such undeniably joy and positivity. From the underground parties of The Chateau to the 'positive agers' of the Blackfriars Settlement to the volunteers Archbishop’s Park Gardening Club, Liz Johnson Artur brings South London and its' thriving communities to life with vivacious colours and dazzling momentum for one simple reason: "they represent London as a whole - and it is the best thing London has to offer."


Image credits: Liz Johnson Artur/Southbank Centre.

Interview credits: AnOther Magazine, Refinery29, Paper Journal

Liz Johnson Artur: London is Love is on show at the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall from the 6th of December 2019 to the 5th of January 2020.


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