Steeped in an intergalactic breadth of references — art-historical, racial, political, autobiographical, cosmological — “Message to Our Folks,” Rashid Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition, is an attempt to make sense of the idiosyncratic complexities of 21st-century black identity.
Titled after a 1969 album by avant-garde jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago, the exhibition, at the High Museum of Art through September 8, speaks to a younger generation of contemporary black artists who are profoundly invested in questions of race but not tethered to the notion of a singular, monolithic African-American identity.
An art world veteran at the ripe age of 36, Johnson was 24 and an undergraduate in his hometown of Chicago when he first received international attention with “Freestyle,” the groundbreaking 2001 exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Recognizing a generational shift in black artists of the new millennium, Thelma Golden, the Studio Museum’s director and chief curator, coined the semi-controversial term “post-black” to characterize this knockout assemblage of work by young black emerging artists, a term that spoke to the ongoing redefinition of blackness in contemporary culture.
Although these artists were seriously interested in dealing with issues of race, they were just as interested in their individual identities and the maelstrom of experiences that face all people living in the modern age. “Some people have this expectation that black artists have an obligation to speak to more of the negative aspects of our history,” Johnson said in a recent interview with Burnaway. “I don’t want to live someone else’s history, necessarily; I can only live and suggest my own experiences, and a lot of what my work deals with are my own experiences.”
Johnson’s impressive mid-career retrospective, a traveling exhibition curated by Julie Rodriguez Widholm of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (where it was exhibited last summer), examines the evolution of his work over 14 years as it explores the shifting nature of identity through a wide range of conceptually appropriate materials and artistic processes.
Described variously as an artist-magician, alchemist and trickster, Johnson transforms everyday materials — an Al Green record, a physics book, a photograph of his father, hardwood flooring, shea butter, soap, his friends, himself — and mines them for their myriad of cultural signifiers and metaphorical reinterpretations. Often approaching his work as an Afro-Futurist storyteller, he envisions the future of blackness by reimagining its history.
The result is a complicated visual matrix of the tenets and markers that shape the artist’s personal relationship to a larger collective memory. He references major African-American cultural figures and influences, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Miles Davis and Public Enemy, and filters them through the imaginative lens of his own experience. Despite the largely conceptual nature of Johnson’s aesthetic, the authentic autobiographical perspective that he asserts is the primary entry point to his oeuvre.
Johnson is a thinker, an academic, a theorist. While some aspects of his works seem to rely too heavily on proven artistic formulas, most of this exhibition presents an overwhelmingly complex portrait of his own universe through a variety of media, including photography, video, sculpture and painting.
The first floor of the museum’s Anne Cox Chambers wing displays a single monumental steel sculpture. “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” a representation of the crosshairs of a gun, serves as the emblematic preamble for the show. Initially reading as something plucked from a storehouse of minimalist esoterica, the work surprises with its referential origins, turning inside out what might otherwise seem mere formalism. An audio app (highly recommended) allows the viewer to listen to a sample of the piece’s musical correlate: a work with the same title by 1980s hard-core political rap group Public Enemy. The crosshairs — long a symbol of violence, as well as Public Enemy’s actual logo — exude Zen-like balance and fluidity, offering an unexpected meditative reprieve from an otherwise difficult conversation.
This kind of blurring and repurposing of imagery is Johnson’s signature, and it runs parallel to conceptual themes of fusion and amalgamation in his work, among them miscegenation, or intermixing of races; mixing of high and low culture; and blurring the past with the present and future.
The photographic series “New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club,” among the most striking work in the exhibit, employs friends and acquaintances of the artist as spirit-channeling mediums invoking the likes of Thurgood Marshall and Emmett Till as members of a fictional secret society. In Johnson’s appropriately labeled “Self-Portrait as the Professor of Astronomy, Miscegenation and Critical Theory at the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Center for Graduate Studies,” the artist places himself within that historical lineage. He poses with Kehinde Wiley regality, professorially facing his mirror image – a reference, no doubt, to Du Bois’ concept of “double consciousness,” the sense of perpetually looking at oneself through the eyes of another.
Johnson is probably best known for his post-minimalist, domestic-looking “shelf” pieces. Consisting largely of mementos from the artist’s youth, these shrine-like presentations of cultural markers seem to pay homage to his familial and ancestral origins. In “The Moment of Creation,” a copy of Les McCann’s “Music Lets Me Be” (released the year of Johnson’s birth) rests against a Mondrian-like geometric backdrop of carefully cut mirrored glass. Delicately placed offerings of shea butter — a moisturizer extracted from the nut of the African shea tree — packed in small containers resembling Tibetan offering bowls rest on the shelves above and below other highly charged objects.
The mouthpiece of a CB radio, for example, dangles from one shelf: a nod to the artist’s father, who in addition to practicing law sold CB radios for a living. The radio is also a device for more symbolic communication, perhaps with Johnson’s character-shaping past as well as with the unknown world beyond, as suggested by the book for which this piece is named, Moment of Creation: Big Bang Physics by James Trefil.
“The New Black Yoga” is among the other most successful works, balancing poignancy and absurdity. A retro-television showing a video of black pseudo-martial arts athletes awkwardly but earnestly inventing a “new” yoga sits on a Persian rug sporting a graffitied marking of the work’s title. The installation appears to be a self-mocking take on Johnson’s own interest in the fusion of diverse racial groups, yet at the same time it asks, why not?
“How Ya Like Me Now” is a direct reference to David Hammons’ 1983 “Bliz-aard Ball Sale,” in which the artist sold snowballs on the streets of New York (priced based on varying size) to speak to the art market’s commodification of artwork. Replacing snowballs with his trademark shea butter, Johnson seems to poke fun at his own position in the art market and the notion of shea butter as a purchasable form of “Africanness” perpetuating a mythology of materials in Beuys-like fashion. The piece is a perfect example of Johnson’s self-effacingly comedic yet erudite style.
Curator Widholm says, “The exhibition’s underlying challenge is to venture into the terrain of the unknown and the unknowable, a space outside of black-and-white binary oppositions, where there are no clear answers and one’s capacity for self-reflection and critical engagement is the only guide.”
Ranging across mediums, cultures and generations, Johnson’s powerful, unapologetic assertion of self is one answer to the question Golden posed in 2001: how would the history of African-American art — the activists of the 1960s, the Black Arts movement of the ’70s, the multiculturalism of the ’80s that empowered ’90s artists Fred Wilson, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon and Kerry James Marshall — carry through to the next generation? And it poses the same question to the pioneers who will follow. What’s next?
The High Museum of Art has transcended itself with “Message to Our Folks.” Refreshingly relevant, it enjoins the museum and its visitors in the larger contemporary art world dialogue.