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Claudette Johnson Child Q and art: Shouting, screaming and crying – without giving up

Just like the art of Claudette Johnson, whose work is on display at Graves Gallery, Child Q has filled every corner of her frame. Instead of crying out in shame and defeat, both have stood up for themselves and called others to stand with them, says Susan Downer.

Claudette Johnson, And I have my own business, 1982
Claudette Johnson, 2020

On the face of it, Child Q has little in common with the Manchester-born artist Claudette Johnson, whose work is currently on display at Sheffield’s Graves Gallery.

Child Q is the 15-year-old black schoolgirl who was taken out of an exam and strip-searched when (not because) her teachers suspected her of carrying drugs. The fact that she wasn’t is neither here nor there. What is here, right here, is that young black people are seen as criminals before they are seen as children.

Child Q was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “I can't go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up.” And that’s where Claudette Johnson comes in, because her art is balm for everyone who has ever felt that way.

Painting is Johnson's way of shouting, screaming and crying without giving up. With each brushstroke she tells us to shout and let our pain be heard; scream and know that the cries of millions of other injured souls can make the earth tremble. Atrocities such as this should never be unspeakable. The support that Child Q has received in the wake of this violation is testament to the power of unity born of individual pain.

I first came across Claudette Johnson’s work when I saw her disturbing painting, I have my own business in this skin, at Graves. I hated it, and yet I couldn’t look away. Why, I wondered, had someone with such talent created something so ugly? And exactly what ‘business’ did she have?

Let me explain my reaction. In many ways the painting is sensual. It is full of colour, rich shades and deep curves, but there’s a stark white gap where an eye should be. It speaks of pain and brutality, and that’s ugly.

The female body is often a site of violence and abuse. Claudette’s painting asks how we can see ourselves as whole and beautiful when so many parts of us are broken or missing. And then she answers her own question. Look again and you’ll see that shame isn’t part of the image. In showing us her pain, the woman in the painting is showing us the site of her healing. She is owning her sexuality, rather than being sexualised. She is standing, she is strong and she is beautiful.

The story of Child Q is ugly, but the ugliness isn’t hers. When we call it out we demonstrate that the source is external. We bear witness by marching, singing and shouting, and the cries of our creativity become our call to arms.

A painting or a photograph can represent a moment in time, a chapter in a book or an eternal story. Claudette Johnson’s art helps you to your feet. We see that same sense of strength after pain and violence in her painting Seven Bullets, which depicts a Black man lifting his shirt to show seven bleeding bullet holes. On his face is the smile of a man who lives in the castle of his skin; the symbol of a people who assert their right to say ‘I am’ after centuries of violence, degradation and murder.

Racism is a pernicious means of stripping away our ‘I am’ and replacing it with ‘you are’. It says, ‘We are powerful, you are powerless. We are masters, you are slaves. We are clever, you are stupid. We are everything, you are nothing.’ We grow up believing this and we self-exclude from so many opportunities as a result. One pain begets another and the prophesy is fulfilled.

That’s why it is important to push back, even as we bleed. In the words of the poem by Gail Murray that gives Claudette’s painting its title: “I have my own business in this skin and on this planet.”

What do Child Q and Claudette Johnson’s paintings have in common? Child Q has filled every corner of her frame. She is not anonymous to herself; she is more than just a crime scene. Instead of crying out in shame and defeat, she has stood up for herself and called others to stand with her. Empathy is a castle.

Claudette Johnson once said that there is power in ugliness. I’d put it another way. I’d say that there is beauty in feeling whole and worthy of love even when your body is a war zone. There is power in rejecting imposed ugliness, in standing up and speaking out.

Perhaps every person on this planet feels like the walking wounded. We don’t need to offer the world what’s left of us. We need to offer our wholeness to ourselves and together we can become a healing community. That’s how we survive.

Learn more

Susan Downer will host a tour including the work of the Blk Art Group, of which Claudette Johnson was a founder member, on 27 April 2022. Tickets can be booked via Museums Sheffield.

Susan will also co-facilitate a series of free workshops at Graves Gallery for people of colour with Shirin Teifouri. The six sessions will start on Thursday 12 May, 1.30-3.30pm. For more information and to book a place, contact [email protected].

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