Modern living is overlaid with processes disguising our reliance upon the natural world. Animism, mysterious to contemporary Western understanding, establishes symbiotic relationships with animals - practically and symbolically. The masks of the native West Coast aboriginals for instance, often frightening, were used as a visual channel to understanding the spirit of the animal.
Historically, that incredulous understanding has been couched in allegory. Satyrs, centaurs and the many animal manifestations that Zeus assumed in order to interact with women (with Leda he became a swan; with Europa a bull) were a part of the visual vocabulary of the Greeks.
By morphing the human with the animal or depicting an interaction, Ashley Johnson breaks taboos to reveal concepts that are not commonly part of our existence. Johnson is telling stories using animals that are drawn from both the Western psyche and African culture. In one image, hyenas, nocturnal carnivores that feed primarily upon carrion, prey upon a female human infant. This image describes the abhorrent practice of raping infants to cure AIDS, absolutely and effectively depicting the desperation of the disease.
The impact of visual depictions foreign to our knowledge can be shocking. This jarring of sensibility, when executed in a readable manner, as it is by Johnson's dramatically cropped compositions and luminous coloring; is frankly powerful. The imagery touches one and is provocative. This is a positive step towards wisdom. That one might feel repulsion rather than attraction, is not a negative reaction, it is simply an intelligent awakening.
Africa, to one who is not African, may be incomprehensible and the depiction of beasts interacting with humans may strike chords that provoke horror. The unknown that is lurking beyond the periphery of knowledge is the cause of psychosis and Freud worked with this notion of recognizing and naming the areas of the consciousness that we have been socialized to ignore. With recognition, fear is allayed as the 'mysterious other' becomes an identifiable quotient. Once identified, it can be dealt with.
Copyright © 2007, Julie Oakes