Colum Alum Spotlight: Ervin Alex Johnson '12

The DEPS Annual Alumni Residency exhibition by Ervin Alex Johnson ’12 examines police brutality and the beauty of black portraits.


The windows at the C33 Gallery on Congress Parkway want you to take out your phone. Large displays broadcast a series of handwritten #BlackLivesMatter hashtags, and signs encourage passersby to snap pictures and post to social media—essentially, to bear witness.

The window displays are part of the #InHonor series by Ervin Alex Johnson ’12, a series of photo-based mixed media portraits honoring blackness and drawing attention to police brutality. In creating portraits of members of the African-American community, Johnson makes a political statement while also highlighting the beauty of black bodies. The subjects stare straight ahead, their faces splattered and blurred with colored paint. Johnson brought #InHonor to Columbia College Chicago as part of the Department of Exhibitions Performance and Student Spaces (DEPS) Annual Alumni Residency program.  

As part of his residency, Johnson will hold a portrait session on August 13, an opening reception on September 8 and a round table discussion on September 9. He also holds open studio hours every Thursday. He will continue his #InHonor series as the recipient of the 2016 Dammeyer Fellowship in Photographic Arts and Social Issues.


How did you get involved with the DEPS Alumni Residency Program?

I saw that my first photo teacher, [Niki Grangruth MFA '09], got it last year. She was very influential in the direction of my photography. When I got here, I was out [of the closet], but I wasn’t comfortable discussing it. And I had been, up until that time, searching for an avenue that would let me do so courageously. She pushed me to be very honest with my photography.


You’ve talked really openly about finding your path as a black gay man. How does that inform your artistic career?

As I go on, I’m learning about how I want to be seen personally. And I don’t want to speak for everyone, but I do think that there needs to be more attention paid to the representation of the black body, period, and not just as a man. Although [this project] is about violence, I do think that there’s still a beauty to the portraits. And that’s always something that’s important to me: beauty, specifically in the black body.


Can you talk a little bit about the open studio hours and portrait sessions you’ve been doing as part of your residency?

The people who are photographed are black men, women and children. But it is important that people know that I want everyone there to engage in the conversation. I reach out via social media. People come. They sit for the portraits. They sign this wall that I have, expressing what being black is to them.


Do you consider these #InHonor portraits a form of protest?

Yes, definitely. Specifically within portraiture, I think that eye contact is very important. I let [the subjects] settle into the photo until they’re comfortable. Obviously they know the intent of the work. And I wait for that moment where they’re giving me the look that I’m interested in, which is usually not aggressive but very present. I think in all the gazes, it’s very confrontational.


Has working on this project helped you process some of your own thoughts?

Definitely. There are even moments where I have to stop, because it becomes too much. The day that I started my residency, within 24 hours, two people were murdered. It’s a lot sometimes. Especially when some of the people in the photos are loved ones. Everyone is someone’s loved one. 


Why do you use the hashtag in the #InHonor title?

There’s this thing called “Black Twitter.” I thought it’d be interesting to try to enter myself into this online movement of consciousness. In terms of social justice, they do enact change. I want [the work] to live in traditionally white spaces and also on the internet.

I think that art typically feels like it’s not accessible, and I want every aspect of this work to feel accessible. That’s why I have the open studios, that’s why I’m open to answering any questions people have. My art is made for the people, and I think that’s very important. 

Please join us for the Opening Reception of #InHonor on Thursday, September 8, 2016.
Click here to RSVP

My ColumAlum

Hey, Colum Alums! Log in to gain access to exclusive content and functionality, like Class Notes, subscription management and plenty more.

Claim Your Account