In Conversation with Ashley Johnson: Opening the Windows of Black Southern Womanhood
In this week’s One + One interview, curator and writer Veronica Elizabeth Thomas speaks to content creator and photographer Ashley Johnson.
This Winston-Salem based artist explores Black femininity through the lens. From the simple snapping of peas, to the intricate details of Afro-textured hair, Johnson explores the multidimensionality of the Black women in our lives. We spoke with her to find out more:
VET: What influenced you to initially pick up the camera?
AJ: I feel like I’ve always been a person who documents things. I try to catalog and keep trinkets and moments. Before I even owned a camera, my process for documenting or canonizing my life has always been an instinctual urge to preserve these sacred moments for myself or to have it to share with other people. So I think my natural progression for me started from collecting rocks, or stamps, to pictures of my family with a 35mm camera, and it was no turning back from there on.
VET: Yes, I can definitely see the southern influences in your work. From my perspective, your style is very woman-centered and there’s this energy of Black femininity that’s very present and heavy. How has your upbringing, especially from growing up in the South, influenced that aspect of your creativity?
AJ: Entirely. I feel like being southern is an anchor for all of my work. Being southern is unlike any other experience. I’m pretty sure northerners can say the same, or westerners and mid-westerners even. But there’s just a different weight, a gravity to being in the South. And this influences many aspects of being. Moments are more poignant. Things are slower, so you experience things at a closer distance for a long period of time. Even memories hold more weight, and I think my work takes on that. Everything that springs out of me holds an anchor in my southern identity. So being southern, it’s natural to be more observant. It’s natural to slow down and take a moment to really ask different questions.
"Even memories hold more weight, and I think my work takes on that. Everything that springs out of me holds an anchor in my southern identity. "
VET: You recently completed your first solo exhibition, Reach, in August. Congratulations! Could you tell me more about the project, especially it’s inception and how the idea came about?
AJ: First, early last year I was presented with the opportunity to do a group exhibition. There were other aspects that I wanted to incorporate into that show but they weren't working out so I wasn't going to force it. But at that show, a director approached me about having my own solo show at her space. As an artist, there are many people who will come up to you and say "I want to collaborate on this and that with you" but don't always follow through. So I didn’t expect to hear anything but I received an email the next day and she said she was serious and she wanted a meeting. So I went to the space and there was this massive expanse. It was then that I decided to do as much as I can with this space and this opportunity as much as possible.
My work centralizes on southern femininity, and previously I did a five chapter series called “Magnolias” but I never showed it. But, “Magnolias” was really the first time I started to ask introspective questions about myself. So, I decided that I would put all these photos in this space and tell a story about southern womanhood, hair identity, and everything about myself. So it took off from there… the installation had memories from my grandmothers, handwritten letters, and books. I asked if I could incorporate a performance, a forty-foot table, can I hang this and that off the ceilings and the answers were always yes. That was wonderful!
I believe that whenever you’re passionate about something, gifts will make room. So a choreographer contacted me and she appointed me a handful of her best dancers. They were able to take a few gestures from my work and build an entire choreographed selection of phrases from my work. I also put out a casting call and three girls responded and agreed to be blindfolded for three hours. They were amazing for volunteering to sit around a table and perform these actions that I call “southern gestures”, which can be sitting on a porch or snapping peas or sewing. Basically, anything that happens in or around southern homes.
And so, I placed all of these things into one space and for one night, that room became a world that just catapulted people into a Black woman’s mind. This project became a way to experience timeless Black womanhood. It was a phenomenal experience.
VET: There’s an aspect to your work when it comes to observing Black womanhood, that doesn’t emphasize the pain. As a viewer, and a Black woman, this is important. Often, pain is all we see in Black media, art, and literature. So it’s becoming increasingly refreshing to see creatives take a different perspective.
AJ: Exactly! There are some works that I avoid because I don’t want to go through the horror again. I don’t believe every story should have a happy ending. That wouldn’t be realistic. But when you become so deeply immersed within the pain, it can become weighing.
VET: And your art goes beyond photography, you also work with multiple mediums such as writing and weaving, correct? Of all your creative outlets, which one gives you the most creative freedom and why?
AJ: The best part of any project is the creative direction. Before I even pick up my camera, it begins with conceptualizing. The dreaming, the mood boarding, the pulling ideas out of thin air. I have to flesh out every detail of an idea and every nuance before I can move on.
VET: What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
AJ: That there is more to Blackness then pain. I think that’s where we start sometimes because it’s all most Black people know. But I want my viewers to look at my work as a window. I don’t mind being observed because I’m honestly still observing myself. And I would love for people to look through my window and find similarities in what other Black women are doing. The one takeaway would be understanding one human to another and making sure we understand the humanness in each of our stories. My work has even created a window for people outside of Black culture to ask questions about Blackness that seem complex to them.
And it’s not about becoming a specimen or doing the heavy-lifting emotionally for others, especially White people. But you also want to be an aide. I want to be an usher for when people look at my work and say, “wow, that’s relatable” and want to know more. I think that’s what’s most important from what I want people to gain.
VET: Are there any upcoming projects that we can look forward to seeing from you?
AJ: This February in Atlanta, I’ll do a solo show in collaboration with Soho House. I also have other exhibitions coming up that are listed on my website!