Can an artist ever get detached from their work? Can an artist ever detach the self from the experience of the self? These were the questions that I first asked Johnson looking at his work. The sheer movement, and the animated quality, draws the viewer for a closer inspection. One of the most intriguing quality of his work is the way it seduces the mind of the viewer by drawing them closer with its formal quality and then teasing their mind with the subjectivity. His fractured narrativity within the larger oeuvre of his work is born out of the fractures within the socio-political conditions in Manipur. It is almost impossible to pinpoint the issue of the day.
Johnson a native of Imphal in Manipur completed his B.V.A and M.V.A in painting from the Faculty of Fine Arts, M.S. University in Vadodara. His practice is informed by his first hand experiences of the socio-political conditions of the common people of Manipur. One of the most serious and striking work in terms of subjectivity is an untitled work from his B.V.A days. The work shows young kids surrounded by bullets and violence. It depicts how the insurgents influence the young innocent minds through their ‘heroic’ tales. The kids start using props like tree branches as guns and start imaging themselves in various revolutionary roles. However, as they start experiencing the world, they soon realize the noise and take to different professions. The sound of gunshots, bullets hitting the walls, dropping on roof and the insurgent passing was a common sight for him growing up. His propinquity to these situations and hurdles transfers into his art practice. His visual language borrows from graphic novel genres and from that of the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. His graphic narration of the stories lend a sense of ‘Fictional Reality’.
His work titled “Ahanba Kalam” (First Writing) talks about the headlines of newspapers in Manipur. Headlines and articles from various newspapers find a visual medium in the work. News about students being gunned down during protests, the killings of innocent men and women, burning of houses, curfews in the city, etc. are the most common news that one comes across. The visuals are provocative and the visual language due to its graphic and comic strip quality is accessible even to those other than seasoned art connoisseurs. The visual language is purposefully chosen, so that the work might reach the larger audience. Most of Johnson’s works follow this graphic narrative quality keeping in mind large audience accessibility. The Ahanba Kalam is a comment on the sad and serious state of socio-political instability in Manipur, where pleasant headlines are a rare affair.
“Lost Game” talks about the role of women in the political struggle in Manipur. Historically, in Manipur women have always been at the forefront of all political struggles. Here, it is very interesting to note the how in our society (largely dominated by patriarchy) women have challenged notions and traditions and have come out in the open for freedom and revolution. The major influence of this work is from the documentary called Gun and a God by Sonia Nepram. The work revolves around the injustice done towards women in general and the widows specifically. It shows two side of the coin in the form of the uniformed men boasting about their achievements. But no matter how much they boast or blab, it is ultimately the laymen who lose their lives. The imagery, the graphic novelesque treatment of the visuals, and the lack of colour in some of the visuals heighten the effect of displacement, violence and injustice in the work.
During his M.V.A program, Johnson experimented with cardboard as a medium. This medium lent the effect of being discarded to his works. The work “I’M NOT RESPONSIBLE” is based on his personal experience with the system in Manipur. It talks about the fear, anger and reverence towards the insurgents. How one’s personification can make a difference towards people’s attitudes is being commented upon in the work. The duality of perception is what makes this work intriguing.
One of the most important work of this period is an installation with five life size coffins made of cardboard. The cardboard again is to show the frivolity with which human lives are treated by the authorities. Four of the five coffins depict young kids with a black thought cloud above them. This is a comment on the socio-political impact on the future of young kids. Situations change the course of life for many young able people of Manipur. The fifth coffin is a response to the unnamed, unrecognized, and at times fake encounters of fake people or even no people. It somewhere is also quite similar to the idea of Schrodinger’s theory.
Johnson’s work operates at multiple level within the milieu socio-political events. It at one hand is a narrative documentary evidence of the situation in Manipur. On the other hand, it delves deeper into the kind of cultural fabric of women empowerment and progressive approach within this context of anti-chauvinism. His visual language is apt as it has a mass accessibility which is most important for his subjectivity. His use of the material at each step provides the viewer a layered entry point to the work both formally and conceptually.
Text by Satyajit Dave, critic-in-residence, Khoj PEERS 2016