Art We Love

React, Respond, Repair: Honoring Black History Month with Guest Curator Barry Johnson

On the occasion of Black History Month, we invited longtime, bestselling Saatchi Art artist Barry Johnson to guest curate a collection of artworks in honor of the celebration. On the heels of a challenging year, we cannot overstate the importance of art as a vehicle for reflection and social change. This crucial function gave rise to the title of this online exhibition—React, Respond, Repair—three words that came to mind as our guest curator selected artworks for this show. In this show, we highlight Black artists whose works take on the active dimensions of those words, as many of these artists create art as a response to our social climate and to the limits of the art-historical canon, spurring us viewers to participate in these artworks’ calls for repair. More broadly, the works in this collection speak to a plurality of Black narratives and technical approaches to art today, including figurative paintings, experimental ceramics, and contemplative abstracts. 

Barry Johnson is a self-taught interdisciplinary artist based in Seattle. He has exhibited throughout the United States in galleries, pop-up spaces, and public art projects. An avid storyteller and community-builder, Barry hosts a regular podcast and had the honor of being a 2018 TEDxSeattle speaker. In addition to his painting and sculpture practice, his recent projects include a children’s book, Oh What Wonderful Hair, written and illustrated in collaboration with his daughter, and a public mural to be displayed in Federal Way, Washington. Read on for Barry’s thoughts on the show, and click here to explore the collection.

What are the major themes that guided your choices for this show?

I look for work with deep narratives and explosive energy. All the works in this show do that on a maximum level. The colors, energy and stories are full-blown throughout each artist’s work and all share stories of our individual and collective experiences. 

Take a look at Mochila Air Land and Sea series: Water by Alta Berri. This shows a solemn figure with their back facing the viewer as they look onto what appears to be a civilization being constructed before them. All while below them lies an entirely different upside down world in the sea. This juxtaposition makes me think of our current and past social climate with little being known about the future except that it’s a current work in process. 

The narrative of life continues in Sometimes a Bone is Flung by Johnny Floyd. This Afra-Surrealist portrait shows an ambiguous figure with a historic African hair style which could also serve as an image of horns. Atop sits what appears to be a furcula or “wishbone,” perhaps a foreshadow. The positioning of the hair and wishbone give me a life-bearing feel. 

Why did you choose the work you did for the cover image?

The image is beautifully dense. Self-portraits always give away the secrets of creatives’ psyches. Jennifer Warren chose to paint herself in a moment of reflection. Feet sunken in, head raised, arms fixed as though holding onto a thought, Jennifer chose to paint a moment of response. That spoke so much to what 2020 was, so I thought it brought the show together masterfully. 

Did you notice any common threads between artists’ practices as you were curating this collection?

React, respond and repair ran throughout my head as I looked throughout each artist’s work. 

What do you hope audiences feel as they look at this collection, and explore these artists’ works?

The Black experience is not a monolith. We refer to it as Culture because it encompasses millions of individualistic experiences. We’re all combating historic prejudices that we refuse to let be our future. Each artist in this show has found ways to communicate themes like that and others. Spend time with the work and support the artists. 

About the Author

Bethany Fincher is a curator at Saatchi Art. Need help finding art? Contact her via our free Art Advisory service at saatchiart.com/artadvisory.