This Art Exhibit Will Get You Talking
”Converse: Real Talk,” an exhibit by Ann Johnson, encourages attendees to discuss tough issues like gentrification, Black Lives Matter, and immigration.
Two weeks have passed since our nation was shaken by an unnerving three-day string of deaths that started with Alton Sterling on July 5, continued with Philando Castile on July 6, and culminated with the shootings of five Dallas police officers—Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson, and Patrick Zamarripa—on July 7.
Would it be too naïve to think that we could just sit down and use our words to hash it out? That’s the idea behind the exhibit Converse: Real Talk, by Ann Johnson, an experimental printmaker and mixed-media artist who teaches at Prairie View A&M University.
“There’s so much going on,” Johnson said. “It’s just, my head is hurting. What’d Fannie Lou Hamer say? ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired’.”
The exhibit, on display at Women & Their Work, in Austin, since May 7, is heavy on race relations but also includes other hot-button societal issues. The spectrum comes into perspective when visitors are first greeted with a PowerPoint presentation. The slideshow’s content, recently updated by Johnson, includes published articles about topics like the transgender restroom debate, the Stanford swimmer accused of rape, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s “reap what you sow” tweet in the wake of the Orlando massacre. These stories are paired with their respective comments sections, which are unsurprisingly florid.
“It’s so easy to hide behind a keyboard and be bold,” Johnson said. “And say all this nasty and ignorant stuff—a lot of it racist and sexist and homophobic. But very rarely will people have those conversations face to face. It might be confrontational, but that’s good. Let’s be open and honest. You can type anything. That doesn’t mean you really mean it. But if you’re looking at somebody, and have that eye contact, it changes the discourse.”
The PowerPoint sets the tone for open dialogue as visitors enter a space designed to resemble a park. There are four “trees,” each meant to elicit a different reaction, from meditative to pissed off. All bear prints of profiles of African-Americans, whether members of Johnson’s family or her circle of artist friends. Sometimes these faces are etched on mirrors. In other cases, Johnson emblazons them on feathers or leaves—magnolia and sycamore leaves have velvety backs that absorb ink well—using an intaglio printmaking technique.
“I’m kind of an anti-printmaker,” Johnson said. “Where most printmakers are very clean and print on paper, and do everything according to plan, I don’t. I’m always willing to try something as long as it’s not going to blow up the kitchen or blow me up.”
The original, titular tree, the Converse Tree, is accompanied by two chairs. The challenge set forth by Johnson is to sit down and discuss some of the trigger words on cards dangling from the branches— terms like Gentrification, Trumped, FLOTUS, SCOTUS, Immigration, Rain, Ferguson, Lives Matter, and Black Lives Matter—as the printed images of people on the leaves keep a watchful eye.
The idea of talking instead of typing may seem obvious, but the point of the exhibit is to illustrate how rare that has become. And how fruitful it can be. “At the opening, an African American woman and an Anglo woman sat under the tree and talked for over twenty minutes about gentrification in Austin,” said Chris Cowden, executive director of Women & Their Work. “While it’s greatly impacting black residents in East Austin, whites and Latinos are also being displaced by more affluent residents. They talked about the role that class plays as well as race.”
Cowden said an African-American family—a father, mother, and son—sat for forty-five minutes and spent a lot of time discussing the questionable handling by cops that they had personally experienced. “They talked about racism being learned, and that it needs to be unlearned,” Cowden said.
Cowden also mentioned two females who discussed the discrimination that has been directed towards transgendered Texans following the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms in Austin. “They spoke of the power structure in Texas being oppressive because of a lack of understanding and fear of something different from their norms,” Cowden said.
It would seem Johnson was destined to provoke. She was born in London, England, but grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. It was there that her father, a sergeant in the Air Force, became an activist and was instrumental in the recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “We were always alert,” Johnson said. “We were always involved. We were always at the marches and making posters—or chili after the march.”
Johnson grew up and attended the Bauder Fashion College, in Arlington, where she studied fashion illustration. After that two-year program, she attended Tarrant County College for a year. There, while studying portraiture, she began to flourish as an artist.
One night at home she accidentally stepped her foot into some paint. Instead of wiping it off, she applied her foot to a canvas and noticed that she was able to work well in that manner. Through repetition she began to compose portraits almost entirely of footprints, including Dennis Rodman, Whoopi Goldberg, and President Barack Obama. A nickname was born: Ann “Sole Sister” Johnson.
Eventually Johnson graduated with a degree in home economics from Prairie View A&M, where she is now an award-winning assistant professor of art. Her first major work was a series titled The Hoop Dreamin Collection. She was inspired by the socio-political Texas painter Michael Ray Charles, who she met during Charles’ 1997 show at the Blaffer Art Museum, in Houston.
Drawing from that experience, Johnson began decorating basketball goals and backboards to make a statement about certain young men who think their only means of success is to reach the NBA. The project evolved into a “blingcatcher” series where Johnson took the rims of the hoops and repurposed them into gold chains of sorts dangling with jewelry and crosses. “The goal of the dream is to get the bling,” she said.
Johnson had a piece in the 2013 Texas Biennial and in 2015 one of her prints on a feather, “Peace Be Still,” was included in a protest-art show organized by Smack Mellon in Brooklyn, prompted by the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police.
It would seem the future’s so bright for Johnson’s consciousness-raising art, or “creative activism,” that she has to wear shades. But elsewhere in the exhibit—past other display pieces, like the suite of shadow boxes with a nest, an afro pick, and a feather depicting Johnson’s great grandmother, a Black Indian with a scantly documented past—shades are a symbol of the oppressor. Aviator-style sunglasses common among cops reveal more than meets the eye with their etched lenses.
“Don’t look at the sunglasses,” Johnson said. “Look in them. If you look into them, you might see something different. They will definitely light a fire.”
Women & Their Work, July 22 to August 18, womenandtheirwork.org
For those who can’t say charcuterie but nonetheless love a mix of fancy meats, cheeses, and spreads, there is Charc Week, organized by Restaurant Gwendolyn, in San Antonio, in which twenty-five restaurants across three cities offer a charcuterie plate of at least four meats for $25.
Various locations, July 22-24, facebook.com/gwendolyncharcweek
Austin psych-rock high priest Roky Erickson resurrected his career in 2008, when out of the shadows he performed a show in Dallas with the rock group the Black Angels—and he hasn’t looked back since. He will return to the scene Saturday for Granada Theater’s Free Week, with $5 tickets that come with a complimentary beer.
Granada Theater, July 23, 8 p.m., rokyerickson.com
If You Build It
Sixteen years later, the California installation artist Robert Irwin has competed his expansive structure on the grounds of Chinati, Donald Judd’s haven for contemporary art. This weekend the public can for the first time view the piece, which plays off the natural light and space, during a dawn to dusk open viewing.
Chinati Foundation, July 23 & 24, chinati.org
This Land is Your Land
Glean insight into, oh, just stuff like the future of your drinking water, at a book release for The Texas Landscape Project, an atlas offering a historical look at environmental trends in the state’s history, with 100 photographs, 300 color maps by cartographer Jonathan Ogren, and lots of number-crunching by author David Todd.
The Twig, July 22, 6 p.m., texaslandscape.org