Rashid Johnson burst onto the contemporary art scene, tackling issues of race with narratives that range from complex inquiries to unflinching social vignettes. His brilliant rise as an artist can be traced back to a pinnacle exhibition in 2001, Thelma Golden’s Freestyle. Johnson—then only 24 years old—was featured in the revolutionary show at Harlem’s Studio Museum, which gave center stage to “post-black art” and African American artists who saw their work as more than racially-defined, reflecting multiple dimensions of identity and experience. It was this show that placed Johnson squarely on the art world’s radar as the emerging creator to watch.
Of course, Johnson’s engagement with art began long before that pivotal exhibition. In fact, from his childhood, he was enamored with the expressive power of creativity. His family wholly embraced the arts—his father was a photographer, painter, and sculptor, and his mother was a professor, scholar, and poet. Traditions of art, history, literature, and philosophy were as central as racial identity within their home. Later, Johnson went on to study photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, and he has since expanded his practice into sculpture, painting, filmmaking, and installation.
Taking a wholly plural approach, his works incorporate a range of references, from historical texts and record covers to tropical plants and CB radios. Both personal and collective, his art uses shea butter and black soap to signify blackness, and his fragmented mosaics symbolize men who are literally and figuratively broken. Johnson’s distinctive aesthetic remixes influences from the far past to the contemporary present into a thought-provoking visual language all his own.
With its vastly referential vocabulary and palpable emotion, Johnson’s work resonates with broad audiences and critics alike. In the nearly two decades since his breakout moment at Freestyle, the artist has shown in the Venice Biennale and numerous international museums and galleries. Last year, he demonstrated his adeptness in film with his first feature, Native Son—a modern interpretation of Richard Wright’s famous novel—which premiered to Sundance acclaim and was then quickly acquired by HBO.
Here, CR speaks with Johnson about the evolution of his creative journey, his search for a universal connectedness, and how these larger themes have created even deeper horizons for his art.
Having worked with multiple mediums across your career, how would you describe the evolution of your art practice?
“It has been a long and windy road. I started with photography in high school but I was always interested in painting and sculpture. These mediums are close to my way of thinking. I am drawn to and fascinated by gesture and mark-making in art.
Photography felt like a really fresh medium to me during that time when I was in undergrad and graduate school. Photography was the medium of the avant-garde, where the thinkers were. It was a medium in transition and critical thinkers were digging into that space. Since that time, I have expanded into painting and sculpture but continue to work in photography, film, and video. In all of these forms, I am often thinking about performance and the body, as well as maintaining a deep interest in materiality.”
You have spoken about how different aspects of identity frame our worldviews. How does your art touch on that personally and collectively?
“In my own projects, the search for universality, what connects all of us, has become a way to reconcile disparate pieces of the self. For instance, investigating my own maleness, my maleness within an understanding of patriarchal history, my Americanness, and my blackness. All of these aspects of my identity exist simultaneously. I see the privilege and idealism of those positions and how they frame my relationship to the world. If I don’t do that, I won’t be able to find myself. I cannot find myself without reconciling all of these aspects of who I am.
This particular worldview probably also comes from being the child of an academic, and I have kinship with others who have that background. We often disallow those additional points of view, intersecting identities, when dealing with folks from disenfranchised positions. We tend to privilege only certain aspects of their identity. It can be problematic how we create shorthand for engagement and communication for people with certain backgrounds, such as women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. It can be limiting if you don’t push past that. My goal has always been to explore and push past monolithic narratives and to define my personal identity in the way that I prefer it be defined. I want to explore my position, such as my black self, inside and outside of that subject matter, so that it is not defined for me.”
In addition to black identity, you cite art, literature, and history as major influences. How do these spheres come together in your work?
“I see my work as having evolved from my earlier positions. Early on, I had a specific investment in exploring and understanding how blackness would be defined for me—and by me. I wanted to emphasize the history of black intellectuals, such as Frederick Douglass, Harold Cruise, W.E.B. Du Bois, so that my shorthand and my form were not just tragic histories. I was exploring engagement in intellectual histories because I needed to fill in the gaps in the dialogue about the condition of blackness, which was often limited to stories of slavery and oppression. Those are stories of black history, but not all the stories of black history.”
Film has become a recent focus of your practice. How do your feature Native Son and your recent film “The Hikers” extend the ideas of your visual art?
“I have always been interested in film and moving images. The overarching themes in my work—self-exploration, identifying my location within a narrative, different materials, and ways of exploring concerns that are both mine and collective—are not medium-specific. They are present in all my work, regardless of medium.
I think about my life as a black man, as a man in America, as a black man in America, as a middle-class black man in America. I think about the America I grew up in and the one we currently occupy. I think about how I change, my thoughts change, and the environment around me changes. Evaluating those changes and my circumstances is never uninteresting to me. I am constantly seeing through different eyes and the world is constantly changing around me. I can only speak from my own perspective and the aspects that make up my character and understanding at a given time.
Film, and especially narrative film, brings a different opportunity to explore these themes and creates another access point for people. Broadening the way an audience interacts with my work and the way that they might see their own experience in these characters and these narratives, even if they have had very different life experiences. Ideally the audience can see commonalities and relate on a deeper level to these protagonists and to me, through these universal themes of physical and mental wellness, and through understandings of history or the historical figures that I highlight. I find that in exploring these broader themes from my particular perspective, I feel myself being less and less alone.”
Your works such as “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,” “Stay Black and Die,” and “I Talk White” offer a stark view of blackness and racial relations. What would you like audiences to take away as their messages?
“‘Stay black and die’ is actually a humorous reference, like something a husband may say if his wife tells him that he needs to take out the garbage. He may say, ‘All I have to do is stay black and die.’ It is meant to be colloquial and part of a lighter narrative. It’s a little piece of cultural identity, like the relationship between shea butter and Africanness. Its widespread application relates to transatlantic movement and it gained popularity during the Afrocentric movement of the 1970s. Shea butter in my work represents a product that has been a big part of my personal life and childhood but is also used with some humor to highlight the absurdity of trying to apply a cultural identity through a moisturizer.
Earlier, my form of blackness was all-consuming in my artwork. It was Native Son, black-eyed peas, colloquial statements, a vernacular that had to build the tools to say what it was. I have a sort of freedom in this different stage of my work now. I have my own material language that has the signifiers and themes I have already built to work with.
The goal for me has always been to have an investment in and explore the world around me. I think about the world not just as a location of the self, it is not just you who is changing like your position relative to the sun. The world around us is constantly evolving as a larger narrative. There are different, even greater levels of reward, if you are willing to explore the broader picture.”
You have described your place in art as a questioner. Which questions are currently on your mind and in your work?
“One thing I am thinking about currently is who I am going to vote for…And on a greater level, what are we going to do and who are we now? Are we still the country of compassion and empathy that has evolved to make up for and change our relationship to gender, race, and LGBTQ positions? It is a question both of the self and the collective us, the wholeness of the human condition: Who are we? Some of the answers are in our concrete moments. When we are younger, we may think more about the micro themes: How am I affected?
At a different stage in life and how we see the world, there are more thematic concerns: How do we love? How do we find joy or peace? I find myself more there now as an artist, which is larger and more deeply valuable. What is the point of everything between say 16 and 40, trying to find your place, trying to get in line, or out of line? There are these pivotal moments that are not age-based so much as stage-based. There is both loss and gain in moving away from a micro position, maneuvering and looking more globally to seek solutions, but we need to have a deeply collective view of the world. Because in the end, what else is there?”END
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