Relaxed, powerful and beautiful, Johnson’s oversized portraits demand respect. Her subjects are unconstrained by the boundaries of the canvas, wear deep colours and make unwavering eye contact with the viewer. Johnson describes the women in her paintings as "monoliths, larger than life versions of women".
Whilst studying fine art in Wolverhampton, Johnson became a founder member of the Blk Art Group in 1979 alongside other young black British artists including Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid and Maud Sulter. The group came to be known for artworks that highlighted Britain’s imperial past, institutional racism and the abuse of power.
Taking on European traditions of painterly, psychological portraiture, Johnson’s work deposes the genre’s traditionally male and white gaze. In opposition to the invisibility or objectification of the black female body in the history of art, her sitters are complex, active subjects with rich interior lives.
The three paintings that make up Claudette Johnson’s Arts Council Collection series, Trilogy, 1982-86, are among the works featured in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s forthcoming National Partners exhibition, Women Power Protest. Marking a century since the first women won the right to vote, 'Women Power Protest' brings together modern and contemporary artworks from the Arts Council Collection and Birmingham’s own collection to celebrate female artists who have explored protest, social commentary and identity in their work.
Showcasing pieces by celebrated artists including Susan Hiller, Lubaina Himid, and Mary Kelly, as well as sometimes controversial artists such as Sam Taylor-Johnson, Sonia Boyce, and Margaret Harrison, the exhibition will not shy away from difficult subjects, nor underplay the genius behind these artworks. Inspired by the bold work of feminist artists and activists, Women Power Protest will raise awareness, provoke debate and ask just how much has changed for women?
Emalee Beddoes-Davis is Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at Birmingham Museums Trust.
Women Power Protest is at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from 10 November until 31 March 2019.