At the start of her residency in Clichy-sous-Bois, an eastern Paris suburb, Chicago-based visual artist and activist Tonika Lewis Johnson heard a familiar sound: Luther Vandross’s 1980 song “Glow of Love,” a “total Black Chicago barbecue song,” as she described it. Johnson was even more surprised to learn that young people had a connection to another American music genre that hit even closer to home: Chicago drill musicians like Lil Durk, Chief Keef, and G Herbo.
The affinity soon made sense to Johnson as she reflected in an interview, “They can relate to everything a Chicago drill music artist says because it’s very similar to their experiences here: They’re isolated from the center of the city … They do have a very challenging, precarious relationship with the police.”
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These unexpected moments of connection define Johnson’s work through ongoing projects like the “Folded Map,” in which she brought together neighbors at parallel addresses on Chicago’s north and south sides. More recently, she placed signs in her native Englewood neighborhood at homes marking Land Sale Contracts (LSCs). This racist practice locked potential homebuyers out of mortgages by requiring monthly payments with no ownership attached. (According to a Duke University study, 75–95% of houses sold to Black families during the 1950s and ‘60s were through LCS, a “legally sanctioned plunder of Black wealth” estimated at between $3.2 and $4 billion.)
While Johnson’s projects are deeply rooted in the Windy City, she recently traveled across the Atlantic to explore the experience of Black people in France through a residency with the cultural hub Ateliers Médicis in Clichy-sous-Bois. This majority French-African commune is disconnected from any major roadway and has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the country.
“All of it stems from housing segregation and how that shapes your personal relationships, where you live, and your social network: That’s the throughline that I identified and the throughline I wanted to really explore more deeply,” said Johnson. She added, “We think that understanding geography is just a way to get to know history. But no, it’s critical to get to know people today.”
In fact, the similarities between Clichy and the South Side of Chicago led the Ateliers Médicis — which promotes the arts in the local area — to create Clichycago in 2021. Clichycago, which is centered on the theme of “Communities suffered, communities chosen,” aims to “create a “third place where voices and the ideas of those who live in, do and think about working-class neighborhoods and the outskirts.”
In France, Johnson expanded her “Belonging” project, which she started in Chicago in 2018 by photographing teenagers of color in places they felt they didn’t belong. Focusing on this population was particularly important to Johnson, who first realized how Chicago was divided while commuting from the South Side to her North Side high school. With “Belonging,” she wanted to amplify the voices of those the city neglects, despite the fact that Black and Brown people make up a majority of its residents. She said, “The questions that you have about your environment at that age really do frame how you think about where you live.”
Johnson, who has a French god-daughter, previously had long discussions with locals about race in the country. She said making “Belonging” an international endeavor was a way to develop a transatlantic conversation about race: “We are both a demographic of people who are from countries that are rich, that have a deep history of slavery and colonization. And it’s a kind of relationship with a country that no one else can really understand.”
However, Johnson could have never predicted that the situation in Clichy and other French suburbs would become global front-page news following a police shooting that sadly echoed those that have occurred in the United States and around the world. In June, Nahel M., a 17-year-old of Algerian descent from the western Parisian suburb of Nanterre, was killed by an officer during a traffic stop. Weeks of protests followed, with many recalling a similar response in 2005 after the death of two other young people of color evading law enforcement officers. Their deaths occurred in Clichy-sous-Bois, where Ateliers Medici is located.
In true fashion, Johnson used maps to explain the situation to her social media followers. For many Americans, it’s surprising to learn that French public housing is concentrated in suburbs, known as banlieues. Paris’s 20 arrondissements form a spiral, with a highway separating the city from the suburbs, many of which are underresourced and home to largely working-class and immigrant communities. Nahel’s death brought renewed attention to racism in France, particularly the use of force by police officers.
While this added weight to Johnson’s project, she believes that operating in the abstract space of art as opposed to explicit journalism “makes it easy to have these very open, transparent, vulnerable conversations because I am able to use contacts who we share a personal relationship with,” which created “an automatic level of trust.” She also left room for the conversation to meander over hours and used follow-ups to go further in-depth as the subjects became more comfortable. She went to events they hosted and even a football game: “It’s really just having enough curiosity and compassion to want to get to know people. And people like to be listened to when they feel that they’re being heard.”
Similar to her Chicago “Belonging” subjects, those in France highlighted their personal experiences of discrimination. But one of the most significant differences she found was the lack of recognition of racism in mainstream French society — despite its large population of individuals from sub-Saharan and North African descent, France doesn’t keep statistics around race, with many arguing its divisive to the preservation of French identity. This means few studies exist proving the existence of racism, whether it be within housing, schooling, the workplace, or other realms. Many pundits, particularly on the right, also believe le wokisme, the French variation of the American term “woke,” is infiltrating French universities and other institutions through concepts like critical race theory.
One of the people Johnson photographed is Karlton Seydi, a 29-year-old photographer and cinematographer. Seydi described France as an abusive parent, one that doesn’t fully accept them as being French. Within his friend group, they call it the “6/9 effect,” in which two people see a situation in an upside-down, opposite manner: “We clearly see it’s a six. They want to tell us it’s a nine.”
Johnson recalled him telling her that “everyone’s supposedly French. Since we don’t have that language [to talk about racism], it’s very easy for them — meaning the establishment, the country — to make us feel like we’re crazy.”
Colette (who chose not to give her last name), a 32-year-old florist whose mother is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told Johnson that she felt lied to and robbed of her culture “because there’s no conversation, no way that she ever learned about the country her mom was from and how it’s connected to France.” European colonialism in Africa “contributed to why her mother wanted to come to France to have a better life.”
Here, Johnson drew a contrast with her experience in the US, where “there’s no denying that we’ve been here with white people the same amount of time. So no one’s gonna deny the fact that we’re American. But for Black French people, it doesn’t matter if they were born there or not. People are still going to question their identity like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’”
Johnson said this partially arises from the reality that slavery occurred within the US, while it was limited to French colonies, making it “very easy to erase that history, to not even teach it or not even acknowledge it. So I can understand the conflict and the frustration that Black French people experience.”
Another of Johnson’s interview subjects added further nuance to the conversation — Knight is an American photographer who chose to live in France. He has experienced a different city, “like how James Baldwin used to talk about Paris.” The famed writer is part of a long lineage of African Americans who found a more welcoming community in the City of Light. This most notably includes Josephine Baker, the performer and World War II Resistance member who was recently interned in the Panthéon (the first Black woman given this high honor).
These creatives shaped French culture through jazz, literature, and other mediums, a trend that continues today with the influence of rap and street style. But when speaking with Black French people, Johnson was particularly moved by their dedication to their African roots. They “discuss the value of culture and keeping it because it’s what connects you to a place. And when you’re connected to a place, you always feel it’s someplace you might go back to, someplace you invest in, someplace you can work in, some paid place you can live in. And all of those things add to economic development.”
Johnson is now going through her hours of interviews and photos, captured in places that hold meaning for the sources, like the Châtelet metro station, where many suburban lines go. Her work will be part of “Regards du Grand Paris.” This 10-year (2016–2026) project between Ateliers Médicis, the Centre National des Arts Plastiques, and the French Ministry of Culture aims to create a rich body of images depicting the reality of Parisian life. Johnson hopes to help demystify Paris and its fantasy image, which can hinder the work of those fighting for social justice.
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“Beyond the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, La Seine, streets bursting with boutiques, galleries, and cafes, Paris is a delusion! Paris’ leisurely culture was/is built on the stolen riches and resources from the MANY African countries it colonized!” she wrote in a follow-up reflection. “Those who care to pay attention can easily see, Paris’ successful erasure of its atrocious colonial history from public consciousness is the chef’s kiss of racism, capitalism, and masterful manipulation.”