Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

The secrets contained within negative space

Claire Johnson’s second solo presentation at SMITH, ‘Remnants’, further interrogates the relationship between objects and meaning. ART AFRICA spoke to Johnson about how the new body of work was conceptualised and the subjectivity of objects.


Claire Johanson, Remnant Studies I & II, 2019.Claire Johnson, Remnant Studies I & II, 2019. All images courtesy of SMITH.


ART AFRICA: Your second solo collection of works, ‘Remnant’, continues your investigation of the idea of the presence of absence. How has your approach to this topic changed since your first solo show at SMITH, 2017’s ‘Changing Hands’?

Claire Johnson: My previous solo, ‘Changing Hands’, was centred around the object itself, and the separation of an object from its most literal meaning, making room for the viewer to make their own interpretation.

During the research phase for ‘Remnant’, I began collecting stories about objects and their meaning from friends and strangers. Through this process, the concept of the object as a conduit for memory came into focus. By following this breadcrumb I found myself in a new territory, where working directly with found objects became an essential development in the work.

It was through the combination of story-telling, and the handling of found material that I started to understand that what is absent or neglected, could be as evocative as what is present and chosen.


Installation view of Claire Johnson's 'Remnants'.Installation view of Claire Johnson’s ‘Remnant’.

The works in ‘Remnant’ have far more muted, ghostly colours than in ‘Changing Hands’ – could you comment on this?

My initial approach to developing the work was similar to my previous show, but very quickly I started exploring new ideas which resulted in the body of work having a linear, journey-like progression rather than a circular, conclusive route.

The structure of the show really exposes my process – beginning with the collection of stories, to the video production and then to the exploration of fabric and found materials.

The character of the found material – the honesty and vulnerability of their folds and marks laid bare – was a very important feature of the work, and therefore these pieces are left unembellished.

The curation of the show intentionally follows this progression, fading out or into colour depending on what angle you approach the work.


Claire Johnson, Glad Rags I, 2019.Glad Rags I, 2019.

What attracts you to fabric as a central medium within your work?

Through my research, I realised that many of the people I spoke to related some of their strongest memories to items of clothing. It’s incredible how much memory clothing holds. The intimate connection to the body, the moulding by constant wearing, a patina that grows with usage, and disintegration of fabric over time.

Another interesting consideration was what is left behind when a garment is created. I stumbled across a big batch of fabric offcuts marked remnant and these pieces conveyed a strong sense of negative space – it was very clear that something had been removed and this piece was what was discarded.

I really enjoyed working with the sculptural quality of fabric in this show. To make a piece of canvas on a frame was a considered sculptural decision, rather than one that relates purely to a medium to work upon.


Claire Johnson, Warp and Weft, 2019.Warp and Weft, 2019.


In the process of creating these works, it has been said that you unearthed your own personal narrative – “a familial preoccupation with fabric that extended back generations” – could you elaborate on this?

Through the conversations I had with other people, I became aware of an obsession with textile and cloth that is very present in my family. This connects back to my great grandfather who ran a department store in Armagh in Northern Ireland, A Lennox and Sons. Here my grandfather would spend time with reams of beautiful fabric learning the trade. This was passed down to my mother and subsequently to my brother and me.

After intuitively turning toward fabric as a medium, it pleasantly surprised me that this decision may indeed be hereditary.


Installation view of Claire Johnson's 'Remnants'.Installation view of Claire Johnson’s ‘Remnants’.


How have you processed the notion of the subjectivity of memory through your work?

Christian Boltanski’s ideas of “small memories” – trivial, little things that are lost through generations, but are central to the lived experience – were a big influence on me. I’m fascinated by the seemingly incidental and often inexplicable ways objects gain significance, often linking lasting and important memories with random events and objects in ways we can’t control. In the same breath, there is the shared experience of memory – not knowing how it works, but knowing vividly how it feels, which acts as a port of entry for viewers.

Because I was dealing with my own memory as well as the memories of others, there are multiple methods through which I have approached this concept. A number of works were inspired by stories of memorable or otherwise personal objects gathered via interviews. Other works, deriving from found objects, dealt with the absence of stories, but lingering presence. Others yet, like the video works, were intended to provide a real-world glimpse into motifs that are present in the surrounding pieces.

The presentation of the work also has a role to play here. Stripping away the safety of the frame and revealing elements of my process that are usually hidden during the ‘finishing’ of works – like exposing rough brushwork and leaving visible the stitches holding pieces of fabric together – made the work more vulnerable and forthcoming. This increased transparency became cathartic, feeling like it reconnected the work with the everydayness of the memories.


Inscription Conhada ofere eeme mo dia da Festa de 1960, 2019.Inscription Conhada ofere eeme mo dia da Festa de 1960, 2019.


Remnant, 2019.Remnant, 2019.


‘Remnant’ will be on view at SMITH, Cape Town, South Africa, till 9 March  2019. SMITH is hosting a walkabout with the artist on Thursday 7 March at 17h00. Please arrive a few minutes earlier as the walkabout will commence at 17:00.

Zahra Abba Omar

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