Georgina Johnson

Georgina Johnson

London: For a word that’s bandied around so liberally, it’s fascinating how loose the definition of ‘sustainability’ is. At its most fundamental, it refers to ‘the quality of being able to continue over a period of time’ (or so says the Cambridge dictionary). Today it’s used and abused most readily in connection with the climate crisis: applied to reusable water bottles, or recycled-cotton jeans, and slotted neatly, if somewhat ineffectually, into the boardroom-born marketing campaign concepts that paper our billboards. For Georgina Johnson, the term ‘sustainability’ doesn’t do the work required of it anymore. She’s more interested in ‘repair and regeneration’ when it comes to environmentalism, but also the economy and social justice. These are the ideas she takes up in her work—a multi-disciplinary practice which straddles writing, publishing, curation, filmmaking, production, art, and design. After graduating with a degree in Fashion Design from London College of Fashion and a spell working for couture brands, she launched the Laundry Arts, a platform which would allow her to put down one title and pick up dozens of others. In 2020 as ‘the world exploded’, with the pandemic digging its heels in and the Black Lives Matter movement reaching a global stage, she launched The Slow Grind: Finding Our Way Back to Creative Balance, a collection of essays, think pieces, and conversations by figures across the cultural and creative industries (myself included). This collection takes up her ideas about environmentalism, social justice, and mental health, asking questions and attempting to answer some, too. It’s just been reprinted for a second run. The time that elapsed between print runs wasn’t uneventful for Georgina, who faced a crippling mental health crisis, three weeks in a mental health hospital, and a life-changing diagnosis, along with the struggles faced by the rest of the world. 2021 has seen her recovering, reframing, learning, and growing. And grinding! But slowly, now—producing a podcast, a new book, and plenty more besides. We sat down in her calm, cosy living room in South London, just a little less south than the town she grew up in, surrounded by well-tended plants, and one curious cat.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

Had you always lived in Croydon, before you moved here?

I was born there. I only moved in May. I still have my studio there, which I like, because it ties me to the place. I remember the first piece that was written about me; the headline read ‘The Black Designer from Croydon’. I hated that headline, firstly, because you never read that for somebody who’s non-Black, and secondly, is it a critique of me? Very rarely do people have good things to say about Croydon. But I like being from there. It grounds me. You’re smart in both senses: street smart, and intelligent. Unfortunately we have to learn how to code-switch. But as I get further into my career, I’ve realised that I don’t want to do that. I want to speak how I speak. I love being from where I’m from. It’s this multifaceted identity that I guess most families of migrants have. I’m Black, I’m British. I’m Caribbean, my family’s Jamaican. But I also feel like a South Londoner, a deep South Londoner. To me, more and more, it’s something to be proud of. The more I do educational stuff, the more I want to share that with those kids that come from where I come from.

Education has played a really important part in forging your sense of self, hasn’t it?

Yes. From when I was four years old until I was 12 my parents put me in a supplementary school called Croydon Supplementary Education Project. I think it was the first place that I felt seen. I just felt so good there. At the time I was like, Mum, why am I going to school on a Saturday as well? But you made friends, you found yourself. They taught us Black history—it was the first and only place that I was taught Black history—and that was instrumental. It was the centre of all education there; they taught us about Black mathematicians, Black scientists, Black historians. That was very foundational in my life—to learn Black history, surrounded by Black and brown people, to have Black teachers. It mattered so much. I know that that was a place that helped me feel strong in myself.

But you know, everybody that went to CSEP is an exception to the rule, because there aren’t loads of supplementary schools. Especially now. A lot of them are self-starters, they would be considered community organisations. They’re not government funded. It says to me how sidelined history that isn’t British—or English, I should say—is, and was, especially in the late ‘90s, early 2000s. It was a non- conversation. To have that influence at that time, and at that age, was revolutionary. Since I’ve been doing various projects, I’ve wanted to give back to them. I donated an industrial sewing machine to them, and when I brought out the book last year, I donated lots of books to them.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

How do you feel about the way those labels are used to describe you now?

I remember speaking to Campbell Addy, who’s from nearby, about that specific piece when it first came out. He told me, it’s a double-edged sword; it’s annoying, but that headline is immediately noticeable to someone else who’s Black, for instance. I do think normalising the fact that these voices should be prominent, and can become more prominent, is the way forward. I don’t run away from my identity, but I want to have nuanced conversations that are full and whole, so that it doesn’t become the sole topic. I’m a full person. As I go forward in my career I don’t want to have to keep driving that home. I want people to educate themselves about being around people from communities that are different from their own.

Do you remember when you first knew that you were a creative person?

I loved art, I loved painting and drawing. My parents still have a lot of the ceramics that I made, or glittery things. I realised that I wanted to take that forward in secondary school. I’ve always been creative, but that’s always gone hand-in-hand with ideas on business and politics. I was like, if I’m going to do Art and Textiles, I actually want to know how this works.

There is also the whole thing with being part of a Black family; they see practical subjects as more important than those they feel are a bit esoteric. When I graduated from LCF with a first-class degree, my nan was like, ‘Oh, wow, okay! This is interesting! But I still think you should have done nursing’. It’s hilarious. I’m like, Nan! Come on! But when I was studying, because there was so much I wanted to achieve, doing well started not to matter so much. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s symptomatic of bad mental health. I was striving so hard that I burnt out very, very early. I think that set a routine of climax, and then drop; climax, and then drop. I got very used to that cycle.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson
Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

When did your challenges with your mental health become part of your daily reality?

I have a lot of very, very frank conversations with my mum about this now. We’re so open with each other and it’s been great in recent years, her tracking things back for me. My parents divorced when I was 13, and I had to move to Birmingham with my mum for my GCSEs, then I later came back to London for my A levels. I think she noticed that something wasn’t great with me in the final years of primary school. In that period, they were in the middle of breaking up and I felt like I was fine, but my mum said that I never cried, I never said that I was upset about anything, it was very cut and dry. I kind of kept that up.

I do feel though, that I found myself a little more when I was in Birmingham, actually. I became very independent, because I had to go and make friends. I’ve always been very good at speaking to anyone, and I think my mum was grateful that she could put me in an unknown environment and I’d flourish. But I also became anxious. I wanted to do well, but I think that was because I wanted to have some sort of control in that environment. It was similar to when I was in primary school, I was very badly bullied, I again hid that from my parents, and doing well was the only way that I could kind of control my experience. I would get really bad migraines which carried through to secondary school, which I later found out were a result of stress, but it took another turn when I finished my A levels.

It’s so hard when you’re that age; you’re under so much pressure.

Yeah it is. At the time, I googled my symptoms. I was like, why am I crying all the time? Why is anything setting me off? Why am I not wanting to go out? Why am I not eating? What is the answer? I felt very alone, because my mum was still in Birmingham, and she was the only person I could talk to about it, and I felt like I had to hide it, because it wasn’t something that I’d ever heard of before depression. I didn’t know what therapy was, I didn’t even know what medication for mental health was. When I did come to learn about them, I was really adamant not to take them, because I didn’t want to do something that I’d have to rely on forever. I wanted to be able to figure it out naturally.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

I guess when you learn to be self-sufficient, and that you can get all the success that you want just by working harder, naturally you feel that you can succeed over your own mind as well.

Absolutely. We’re primed to think that, if you do this, if you apply this, if you work hard enough, if you’re more productive, you’re going to be happy and you’re going to be rich. You’re going to be all these things and it’s going to make your dreams come true. And it doesn’t, a lot of the time.

After I did the book last year, I got really ill. That experience in particular taught me to take it easy. To reframe, and to continue to reframe my ideas, because landing up in a mental health hospital was not fun. But I also think it was a case of me falling back into the habit of not fully absorbing what was happening around me—the time that we were in, dissociating from it all.

I mean, we were in a pandemic! I lost a lot of family members. After the first one passed, I stopped crying about it. But in hindsight, I realise I was behaving the same way I did when I was younger, when things would hurt me. I would just keep moving. I try my hardest not to have negative thoughts. You can’t always deter it, but I felt as though, if I kept on thinking about all this sadness, I would fall into an episode. But it happened anyway. I think it was already happening. I wasn’t even aware.

That suppression is something that Black women deal with a lot. Unfortunately, it can feel that you have to educate everybody about everything. When you walk into a room, you have to sell yourself in two ways: your ideas, your identity. You have to make sure people see you. You learn to squash yourself in specific environments, or contexts, or situations. A lot of my generation is choosing not to do that; they’re

choosing to be very honest, open, and real about what’s going on.

What’s nice is that now we can have this cross-generational conversation. Since bringing out the book, my nan talks to me about it all the time. When I realised that I had depression for the first time, when I was 17, I would tell her I don’t feel very good, I can’t eat, I can’t do anything. She’d be like, ‘you have nothing to be upset about’. I don’t blame her. It hurt, and it’s upsetting, but she migrated here from the Caribbean and she had to get over so many hurdles. For her, that period was about getting by, trying to survive. Her whole generation had to squash their emotions. And maybe that’s even been passed down. But we have different conversations now. She tries her best to empathise with me and warm me with love and encouragement. She’s one of my best friends now, and I’m so glad to love her.

I’m also really blessed that my mum was very understanding and helped me see what was happening with me. It was a very long road for me, from being 17, to being put in a mental health hospital at 27, then finding out I had bipolar disorder. That really shook me. But it also removed a bit of the shame. Because it gave it a name.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

You’ve got a diagnosis. This is not just an amorphous thing that you’re dealing with—it’s something that you can understand, to a slightly greater degree.

Yes. For it to have a name, and for me to now have a course of treatment, and a care team, and a great psychiatrist—it doesn’t feel like it can just take over me now. It can be managed, and I know what to do and what not to do. Sometimes it might take its own course. It took me a long time to get better. I basically had to learn how to walk again; I was in a really bad way.

It’s interesting that you’ve had all of these different labels to contend with, this series of different identities that you can slot into, but that it’s not always easy to hold onto all at once. Then, with bipolar comes a label which is almost quite freeing, in a way. And as well as having those within your personal life and your identity, you’ve got them in your work: you went from being a fashion designer, to a publisher, a writer, an artist, a curator. A whole bouquet of titles!

You know, it depends on who I’m speaking to. Often people want to know, what’s the one thing that you do? I often say that I’m a polymath, but I don’t see myself as an expert in all these areas. I think I’m just very elastic with my practice. Since I was young, I haven’t liked the idea of having to do one thing. That doesn’t interest me. But I think a lot of creatives work in this way, they’re just afraid to say it.

What I’ve found really interesting is that people kind of expect it from men and accept it very easily. If a man says, I’m the CEO, but I’m also a DJ on the side, people are totally enamoured by that. With a woman, it’s like, but what’s your role?

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

Yes! And women are encouraged to take on so many roles, all the time. If you can’t perform all of them, society punishes you for that. You can be a ‘career woman’, but you might also have to be the caregiver, or the homemaker, the daughter, the friend.

It’s so misogynistic. And women do it to other women, too.

For me, the fact that you operate in all of these different spheres goes hand in hand with the fact that you’re a person who has built a network of like minds. It’s about calling on different people for their different skills and working in close collaboration with them.

We could all call ourselves curators. Personally, I think a curator is a facilitator. They’re networkers. They’re producers. You’re basically raising your own voice, raising the voices of others, and ensuring that things that are unseen, become seen. It shape-shifts. Not being able to fit a specific mould is beautiful, because then you allow your life to just take its own journey. My working in this way is part of me freeing myself. Growing up, I felt I had to be successful. Now, a lot of things fail. More and more, I’m making friends with the idea of failure, because something has to fail first in order for wonder and innovation to come into play. I really don’t believe in waiting for someone else to tell me that I’m good enough. I have to believe it, through the failure.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

I want to come back to sustainability. How do you define it?

Well, I approached The Slow Grind through thinking about sustainability in a mental health sense, and as a social justice issue. There are communities that have less social mobility and less economic mobility, which impacts their physical health, but also their mental health, in a multitude of ways. And I was thinking about how the creative industries do that and create tension for a lot of communities.

When I left university I went and worked for couture brands, but it wasn’t sustainable. Even the people that were established there, you could see that they were just getting by—not in an economic sense, but in a health sense. I started looking at all the moving parts. You had to do work seven days a week, morning to midnight, just to keep going. And I realised, this isn’t healthy for anybody, let alone a community that doesn’t have the same access. There are only certain kinds of people who can leave university and afford to take on an unpaid internship long term. I started putting these pieces together, and that was the reason that I started the Laundry Arts.

I don’t really like the word sustainability because I don’t think that anything we do now can be ‘sustainable’, in a consumption or an extraction sense. The marriage of environmental justice and social justice just makes sense. We’re animals, and we’re deeply social—the connection between living things is like a social network in itself. It’s our natural environment. But as humans, we exist in a society of a different kind. How is that made up? How does it affect certain things like health? So it all kind of came through my personal experience, and having conversations with people in this network that I’ve been building.

When I first started doing the research in 2018, it started with loads of conversations. What I found was a lot of people were inadvertently talking about their mental health, but not wanting to say; this is impacted by my working environment, this is impacted by my economic situation. I felt as though in doing this project, it would give me an outlet to say, this isn’t working. Here’s why it hasn’t worked. This is what we can do about it, collectively. It also gave the contributors the opportunity to look through the lens of their own research, or their own mind, or their own voice. In that respect, I think that instead of talking about sustainability, we should talk about regenerating industries, regenerating connections, regenerating communities. Regeneration and repair—that’s how we can create solutions.

Even the words ‘regeneration and repair’ imply a positive future, a degree of optimism and hope. 

Definitely. I’m tired even thinking about ‘sustainability’. The image that comes to my mind is of a person on a treadmill. How can I sustain myself? I’ve got to give myself breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Am I going to have any fun in between this time? How much work am I going to do? Am I going to have relationships? Instead, why don’t we just stop, and get off the treadmill altogether? But that sustenance is all about capitalism. And I do find it interesting that we talk about capitalism like it’s third person, because actually, it’s made up of people. People are enforcing it and perpetuating it and making sure it keeps growing and infiltrates every single part of our lives.

How do you untangle from that system?

There’s a certain freedom that comes with being small. You’ve just got a bit more flexibility to make things happen. Something kind of profound that came out of the experience I had at the end of last year was that I did start feeling small. Last December was when I started feeling well enough to go outside again. The days were really short. And in my mind I was like, I just need to try and walk for half an hour. I know it sounds a bit airy fairy, but when you look up at the sky, you see the stars and the moon, and it swallows you up, and you feel like, wow, this moves without me. You feel small in the best sense.

When I’m looking after my plants, and I see the rhythm and dance with which they grow, all the leaves coming out of each other, getting tangled up, and then something sprouting, I find that so beautiful because it’s like, wow, if I start something, something else can grow. The cheese plant that I propagated came from my grandma’s big plant, and it’s carrying on that lifecycle. That grounds me.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson

The first launch of the book last year coincided with the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you feel that things have changed in any real way for BIPOC since then?

 I haven’t seen any change that’s really foundational. Last year I launched the Black Futures Pledge and I asked companies to buy copies of The Slow Grind to donate to the community. And some companies did answer the call. This year, I’ve wanted to do the same thing. And nobody is answering the call. But there’s still time.

I do hope that people see that it’s continual, you have to commit to the long haul on this, because there’s always something you can unlearn. There’s also stuff that I can unlearn. If I can facilitate an education around that unlearning, then we’re going to be onto something very positive and very beautiful. In order to be progressive, I really do think you have to be heartfelt. And that can only come from having organic relationships, following people, understanding what they’re building—not from one-off stunts.

The press releases, the statements. It seems that the meaningful work is also often the quiet work. 

If we can really change what’s happening in the background, everything in the forefront will be different, because we will have changed the way our staff are educated, we will have changed our culture. Then we can change our ethos, who we hire and how we hire them, the type of people and conversations that we have on our platform, and how we approach specific communities. What we put out into the world will have been fleshed out in this really conscious way. I think, to be progressive is to commit to the relationship. It is to support those who are doing the invisible work.

Apartamento Magazine - Georgina Johnson
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