Taking up Space: Reflections on Claudette Johnson’s I Came to Dance
As part of Modern Art Oxford’s new internship programme with Oxford Brookes University, Cabanca Lea joined our Programme Team for 4 weeks in May and June, helping in the run up to the opening of Claudette Johnson’s I Came to Dance. Below she reflects on her time at the gallery and her thoughts about the exhibition.
For the last month I have been fortunate to support the preparation and installation of Claudette Johnson’s solo exhibition, I Came to Dance, at Modern Art Oxford. The Programme Placement in partnership with Oxford Brookes University was undoubtedly an exciting prospect for a recent Fine Art graduate such as myself for simply affording me the experience and skills-building that comes with this position. However, when I found out that Claudette Johnson was the upcoming exhibiting artist I was even more elated as, being a person of colour myself, it was fulfilling to be involved in exhibiting work that touches on many of the ethical and societal issues that I am concerned with in my own practice and life.
Johnson’s work speaks to the marginalisation of people of colour and ethnic minorities in the cultural sector and society as a whole. As an international student and soon-to-be working immigrant in Britain I am empathetic to Johnson’s message, call for action and sensitivity to the issues that minorities face; issues that appear to be requiring more spotlighting every day in this fractious and contentious era.
Her larger-than-life paintings depict Black men and women in raw yet powerful poses which serve to break the boundaries of the space that contains them – metaphorically, physically and societally. This artistic decision to have the models in strong, defiant postures brings to my mind some of the people I look up to most today, including my own Filipina mother, art critic duo ‘The White Pube’ and politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes, to name a few. At home, in the art world, media and politics, there are individuals who consistently challenge the imbalances and erasures perpetuated by the societal blinkering towards issues of discrimination, racism and violence that face people of colour in the UK every day. Like Johnson, I too see my own mother in Reclining Figure (2017), taking a moment of rest after a long day of work to soon return to cooking and cleaning for the family.
In Trilogy (1982-86) I am reminded of women of colour in politics, standing in defiance in the face of monolithic power structures, which in many cases have been built on the backs of their persecuted ancestors. The recent Netflix documentary Knock Down The House (2019) highlights the difficulties working class women of colour encounter in achieving positions of power. In preparation for a televised debate, candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes gives herself a pep talk, self-motivating to “take up more space.” Here in the UK, Diane Abbott, the first black MP in House of Commons, has for decades confronted racism, abuse and threats of violence, whilst standing up for the rights of people in the UK. The struggle of women, and Claudette Johnson, sets a precedent for younger women to take up the mantle of liberation.
Personally I want to be in a world where the aspirations and concerns of women of colour are recognised and nurtured both for their creative output and intellectual contributions in sectors where they are often undermined or downplayed. As a result of Johnson’s exhibition at Modern Art Oxford and a long legacy of important female artists, I am hopeful and even inspired to find my own voice and courage to TAKE UP SPACE!