Interviewed and Written by Naya Clark
A conversation with Angela Davis Johnson is a conversation of peace and wisdom. Johnson’s voice maintains the soothing quality of speaking to a relative which gives her work a deeper context. Johnson, an interdisciplinary visual artist, does work in between Atlanta and Little Rock, Arkansas. Her work primarily consists of her painted works and performance art such as “Hollerin’ Space”, an experimental healing installation.
Being featured at WonderRoot’s exhibit “The Gathering”, Davis’ narrative-style paintings evokes movement and the subtleties of the Black experience caught in the moment. Visually, angular edges are balanced by soft paint strokes, and bold characters with indistinct facial features are still able to convey suspended emotion, portraying the grace found in Blackness.
Many portraits portray the strength in Black Woman such as her work displayed “The Gathering”, “Steam Yo Face in Roses. Code: Bowtie//Looking Tattered Disguise Yourself as Free”, “Always Make Space for Yourself. Mix Code: Monkey Wrench//Bowtie”, an “Dig”. Like Davis’ paintings, her words during our discussion rang profound.
NAYA CLARK: You mentioned being a performance artist. What are some of the similarities and differences between performance art, and the process in preparing for that type of visual, versus painting?
ANGELA DAVIS JOHNSON: The similarities between performance and painting are that I view them both as a ritual for understanding the world and a balm for the soul. Since I was a youth I painted to reflect life circumstances, heal my hurt, or comfort myself when I was troubled. I now navigate performance in the same way except with a broader perspective. Whether I am using body movement, paint, or creating spatial environment it is about self expression and also a way to make visible the connection between my spirit, life, history with another person’s spirit. The difference between painting and performance for me is painting can become very solitary and singular. It is like going deep into the quiet of my spirit alone which is very necessary. Whereas performance allows me to a merge with the energy of other people and create a new space.
CLARK: It’s interactive when people get to see it.
JOHNSON: Yeah, when they get to see it, experience it, and the conversation that happens afterwards is feels transformative in a collective way. With painting, it’s just me, my spirit, and the canvas. I need both processes. The performative space is vibing and connecting to the spirits that are around me. I’m feeding off of how you’re feeling, and how I’m feeling. It’s a back and forth. The improvisational energy that’s going between me and those participating feels like world building. So there’s the differences of that. And I go into the performance knowing that this is about to be a collaborative experience rather than when I’m painting which feels very much like singular approach.
CLARK: You were mentioning that it’s an act of healing when you paint or when you perform, and the gathering is an exhibit of femme and femme identifying people on healing. I wanted to get your take on how women heal differently, or how femme people, or non-binary people heal differently than more masculine people, and the use and need for healing, especially in times like this for people who are minorities who need healing. Sorry if that was a long question.
JOHNSON: No problem, I just want to make sure I honor it.
CLARK: Let’s start with women and how do women, femme people, and non-binary people heal differently.
JOHNSON: I don’t know if I can speak to the difference. I think I’m trying to wrap my mind around the question…I was raised in a matriarchy of sorts so I can only speak from the perspective that I know. What I gauge from my brother, and at one time, my former partner, and my uncles is their process of dealing with trauma is different from the way my mother, aunts, and sisters. The men in my life tend to internalize their emotions whereas the women have this sharing and connection that is a lot easier to express. I do this performative work called “Hollerin’ Space” that’s a co-creation with my long time collaborator Muthi Reed. I will say feminine existence especially black women/femme really take themselves into the soul of the work. Opening themselves all the way to the very depth of their core, and we’re able to share in a way without guard. There’s an openness to our expression.
CLARK: That kind of sums up what “The Gathering” is about. How do you feel about being involved in “The Gathering”?
JOHNSON: I feel like being involved in “The Gathering”, it’s right in tune with where I am in my life. People, women, and feminine energy gravitating together, and finding our space to holler and to heal and to really dig into our spirits. It’s what I’ve needed. It’s also what I’m drawn to. So to be in this space feels exactly aligned with where I am in life.
CLARK: I read that you do work in between here (Atlanta) and Little Rock, Arkansas. What’s the difference between being in the art field here and being in the art field in Little Rock?
JOHNSON: The difference is Arkansas will always be home. It’s very familiar. I’ve been there for several years. I have a lot of family there, but it’s also certain limitations there. I am still known primarily as a painter but there is more me that I want to explore. Here in Atlanta, it’s like a door has opened up and I’m meeting artist who are expressing and articulating themselves in a way that I didn’t know existed until I came here. Artist like Danielle Deadwyler, Jessica Caldas … how they are able to take their pain, passion, and use their bodies in order to speak to social issues. That’s something that I didn’t experienced in Little Rock. When I’m here I feel natural in doing so. I feel like what the Atlanta art scene and Atlanta has given me is the ability to explore and express in a natural, scary, unexpected way.
CLARK: That’s a really good way to articulate that, because I’ve never noticed that before, but it is very present that Atlanta does have a different way of channeling people’s voices in a way that other places don’t always have, or if they do have it, it’s different. What type of messages do you try to portray, or conversations you want to evoke in your 2-D art and your performance art?
JOHNSON: I think my concern has always been with connectivity and dismantling unknowability of black women. In my work, the conversation that I would love for people to be in is to really feel the complexities of Black women, and to remember their own complexities and to share the wisdom that comes with that knowledge. I want my work to act as a prompt, as an inner conversation with yourself. For you to remember your own grandmother, and to think about her when you see my work. My hope is it activates something inside of you to remember how the mundane could be the medicine you need. I want that to be apparent when you see my work, such as the paintings that I have on display at “The Gathering”. Steaming your face makes me think about how I and my sister would gather roses from my grandmother’s rose bush that she planted before she died. We would steam our faces and we would be in community holding the towels over our heads. I always thought that’s just something that we did not realizing the powerful ritual of it. So when someone looks at my work, I want people to come away reminiscing “Oh I remember that time I was with my sister. We did…whatever supposed mundane act and recognize that there was medicine in those simple interactions.
CLARK: I noticed that a lot of the work, you had mentioned the complexity of Black Women which isn’t often portrayed in the media. It’s either one of five types of Black Women. I noticed in a lot of your images, even if the facial features aren’t distinct, you can still take in a very complex emotion from that. What’s the process of painting that? How intentional is it?
JOHNSON: It’s very intentional. I know that I present myself as a polite, pleasant person because I’m southern and I was raised that way, but I have multiple things to navigate when I’m engaging in a space. I’m watching how someone is viewing me, how I’m in the space, and there’s so much, and not all of it’s nice in my head. I want that navigation to be seen in my work.
CLARK: You’re very conscious of how you occupy space.
JOHNSON: How I occupy space, how I’m perceived in space. I have to have a certain wisdom and sharpness as a Black woman that I feel that we have to have to carve out space for ourselves. We have to be soft and hard. We have to be aware and still…
CLARK: Aware and carefree
JOHNSON: Simultaneously, because it’s about preserving our spirit and our soul. We have to maintain our humanity and yet speak about our humanity. It’s in larger societal conversation that we are not heard. So we have to make ourselves present and still recognize that we have always been here for ourselves. So there’s a lot that goes into Black feminine being, or womanhood itself. I like to explore this especially through painting eyes. Sometimes the eyes are not there. Sometimes it’s a dot. And to me it’s the sign of the soul.
CLARK: In what ways do you think the community can heal through art, and how your art is affected by the times?
JOHNSON: I’ve noticed that people love to start conversations, but it just stops there at conversation.
CLARK: Not many solutions
JOHNSON: Right, and I’ve always wanted my work to spark conversation. But also in those conversations, I hope my work can push people to go do something beyond words. I believe in societal change through the inner conversation, the space where we are able to ask ourselves real questions to start churning solutions. To me, it’s about going inward, creating a dialogue, and also movement. There are strategies that are already created. There are a lot of people who are doing great work, but what I want to do is to help people to go inward. To be whole enough to able to have a conversation and create change. As an artist in this time, my frustration becomes overwhelming and has to come out somewhere, ya know? I need to be able to release the frustrations in order to deal with the nuances that I observe.
CLARK: How do you express that through performance art, because that’s more physical than and more tactile than a 2D painting, which is still very potent in a message, but how do you make that happen through movement?
JOHNSON: I think for me, when a movement is intentional in opening a live dream. I don’t consider myself a performance artist in the way of dancing or even in the way of singing, but I am cultivating it as dreams and live dreams and being able to listen, and be in space with someone so we can actually allow the light that dwells inside of us to be shared, and so the difference when I think about my work, especially about “Hollerin’ Space”, when I am able to holler with you because something happened that is unspeakable and we can scream together, to be that’s shattering walls. So the movement of screaming together, there’s medicine in that and recognizing your pain, or just recognizing a moment that you just need silence, and if I can create that space of silence to exist, I’m operating in the truest sense of what I want to create.
At this point in the interview, we walked out into the WonderRoot Gallery Davis gave me an insider’s rundown of three pieces.
CLARK: The name of this one is “Always Make Space for Yourself”, how do you come of up with the titles? Do you come up with them before, during, after?
JOHNSON: It really depends. With this particular piece she told me (Johnson points to the woman depicted in painting). Told me what the title was when I was creating it. She was like “You know what? I need some space, though make a beautiful space for me.” So I could feel this title of coming to me. So it started working in tandem and then when I saw her body, I started with a photograph I saw and I got rid of the photograph and started building in my mind. I love the fact that she’s curvy and her whole body is doing what it’s supposed to do, and she’s looking like “yes, it is.”
CLARK: I like the aspect of texture in your work. How do you incorporate that?
JOHNSON: I love fabrics and as it speaks to multiplicity or complexity. I like to layer as much as I can and create as many patterns as I can within the work, and still have a visual that is very plain and easy to understand. My mother made all my clothes, still makes my clothes, so I’m addicted to fabric. So I like to incorporate that in everything I do.
CLARK: I realized that in your work, the indistinctness of all of their features kind of makes it more relatable because you can say “this kind of reminds me of my grandmother, this kind of reminds me of my auntie.” They have features that are similar, but at the same time the features aren’t pronounced.
JOHNSON: Right. We are all mysteries. We know as much about another person as that person wants to give us. So I like to create work that you can find yourself in it and still allow the subject to have that real life mystery to it. Something to investigate and go deeper in, and that’s where you find yourself.
CLARK: This one “Steam Yo Face in Roses/ Bowtie” “Looking Tattered, Disguise Yourself as Free”. How does this phrase relate to this?
JOHNSON: So I was telling you about my sister and how we used to steam our faces. Also, I’m thinking about the healing aspect of creating rose water, and so I just wanted to talk about how we beautify ourselves, and how we use different ways to make ourselves feel free. I’m really interested in quilts that were created in the Underground Railroad. And how those who helped make the quilts put the quilts outside the window, and that’s where enslaved Africans would go to freedom. They would see these quilts as symbols along the way, and one of the symbols were bowties. Bowties meant to disguise yourself. If you’re looking tattered, disguise yourself as free because this is a free space and the slave catchers can come get you. To me, this radical black imagination to be able to say: What are the codes that we’re using now that help us navigate this world that is often hostile to us? A lot of times, as women, we will go and do our hair a certain way, we’ll dress a certain way to disguise ourselves in certain situations. If we’re at work and our coworkers are all white, we come into that space knowing that this is possibly a hostile environment and we may dress ourself to show ourselves that we’re free. I wanted to see how we’re still using these tools. And the monkey-wrench, the monkey-wrench means to gather your tools and so that’s why with this one, it’s like, gather the tools to help you be able to navigate this life. Soak your feet, take care of yourself, breathe and hold you head up and that’s a tool that has passed on generationally.
This one is “Dig”, and this was part of a series of work I created called “Ashes on the Fruit Tree”, and I did it in conjunction to a play about the Jena Six that I was doing with the others in this series, and how the nooses were hung in the trees and how it really sparked a revolution in young people about speaking for their rights and I started investigating lynching in my home town and spaces around and I feel like this right here you have to dig back into history to remember what we survived through, what we came from. So she personifies the spirit of ashes and digging and in her hair is a tree; and ashes, you think that it’s nothing, but it’s just changing form and can be medicinal. My great grandmother was a midwife and healer and she would use ashes for a lot of things and so I wanted to express how we could heal from the trauma of even lynching or to start conversation about that.
CLARK: It’s something that happened. Even though it seems like it happened a long time ago, it wasn’t even 50 years ago.
JOHNSON: And what does it mean to look at this horrendous tragedy bluntly, speak truthfully about it, forgive this and heal from this. What does that work look like? I created eight in the series to dig through and remember and to forgive and to let go, and also to wail and to week. It’s like a process of healing deep rooted pain, and society.
CLARK: How did you decide to put this on a wooden frame?
JOHNSON: I wanted to incorporate the idea of rope. In our history it’s a violent, violent tool for our destruction, and so what does that mean to reclaim that and to wrap our injuries. So I wanted to create this bare wood frame and take the rope back and stretch our healing on it. I saw Rembrandt create a painting, and he used these ropes around a frame, and so I wanted to explore that and reclaim that, and redefine that history.
CLARK: Thank you for speaking with me today, it was an honor to speak to you.
JOHNSON: You’re welcome. Thank you! I enjoyed it.