Sharon Johnson, from London to Brampton

This Brampton resident spotted herself in a 1970 photograph on view in Life Between Islands at the AGO

A woman stands in front a framed black-and-white photograph

Sharon Johnson beside Black Panther school bags, 1970, by Neil Kenlock. Courtesy of the Neil Kenlock Archive. © Neil Kenlock. Photo: Craig Boyko © AGO.

Three years ago, Sharon Johnson received a phone call from a childhood friend in London (UK). The friend explained that during a visit to the Tate Britain, she saw a photograph of four young Black girls in 1970s London – one of whom she believed to be Sharon. She promptly texted an image of the photograph to the now 30-year Brampton resident and sure enough, Johnson identified her child self. Fast forward to March 2024, and through a twist of fate, Johnson would be standing face-to-face with the photograph at the AGO.  

The photograph taken in 1970 by Neil Kenlock MBE depicts four young Black girls standing in a cascading line, facing the camera. Draped on their shoulders are tote bags, each embroidered with patches displaying classic Black power iconography. A six-year-old Johnson stands at the front of the line, coyly glancing to the left.  

This type of photograph is representative of Kenlock’s practice. He began his career in the 1970s as a staff photographer for the British newspaper West Indian World and joined the British Black Panther Party (BBPP) around the same time; during which, the Jamaican-born photographer widely documented a range of BBPP community engagements in the UK, from mass protests to children’s art-making programs. Kenlock has dedicated his life and work to Black British communities, co-founding Root Magazine in the late 1970s and later becoming an early member of the Association of Black Photographers (now Autograph ABP). This photograph, featuring Johnson, as well as several others were acquired by Tate Britain in 2013.  

Neil Kenlock, Black Panther school bags

Neil Kenlock, Black Panther school bags, 1970, printed 2010. Gelatin silver print, Overall: 38.1 × 25.4 cm. Courtesy of the Neil Kenlock Archive. © Neil Kenlock

Johnson longs to remember the details of this historically significant moment. Though she carries many fond memories from her childhood in the UK, this moment, as documented by Kenlock, is not among them. She was born and raised in the UK to Jamaican parents and immigrated to Canada in 1985, settling first in Toronto, then relocating to Brampton in 1992, where she currently resides. While the exact details of the day the photograph was taken escape her, she recognizes her favourite sailor-themed dress, and recalls that her mother was an active community member, often attending events with her young daughter in tow. After her friend first alerted her to the photograph in 2021, Johnson even fished for answers by sharing the image with a group of her elementary school friends on Facebook, to no avail. This fateful document would re-enter Johnson's life until Life Between Islands travelled across the Atlantic Ocean to Toronto in 2023.  

After an acclaimed 2021 run at Tate Britain, Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s–Now arrived at the AGO in December 2023.  Featuring more than 30 artists, the exhibition examines the relationship between the Caribbean and Britain, reconsidering British art history in the 20th and 21st centuries from a Caribbean perspective. Considering a potential visit to the AGO, Johnson toggled through exhibition images online, and low and behold – she noticed a familiar face. Among three works by British Black Panther photographer Kenlock, there was her six-year-old self-standing beside three unknown companions with Black power totes. 

After some investigation of Life Between Islands, Johnson sent an email to Julie Crooks, AGO Curator, Arts of Global Africa and the Diaspora, who organized the AGO presentation of the show. She explained her profound connection to the Kenlock photograph and Crooks promptly invited her for a guided exhibition tour. On a Thursday afternoon in March 2024, she arrived at the AGO where she was able to finally behold and relive this iconic childhood moment in person.

Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art, 1950s–Now was on view at the AGO from December 2023 to April 2024. 


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