Whether working with photography, installation, film, painting, sculpture, or drawing, Rashid Johnson creates works that are marked by narrative possibilities, examining the complexities of cultural identity and history in the contemporary world.Read More
Johnson first garnered critical acclaim with his participation in Freestyle (2001), a group exhibition curated by Thelma Golden that featured works by 28 young black artists at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. He showed a series of photographic portraits, depicting an African-American homeless man that he had encountered in his home city of Chicago.
Since then, Johnson’s practice has broadened to encompass diverse media. A recurring material is black soap, used for cleansing in West Africa—where the artist lived as a child—and also for people with sensitive skin. Johnson usually melts black soap and wax and paints with them to create gestural, abstract paintings such as those in the ‘Cosmic Slop’ series (2011).
Johnson is perhaps most known for his ‘Anxious Men’ series, which began in 2015 as black soap paintings in which abstract portraits of black faces were scratched onto the surface. While the artist first envisioned them as self-portraits, the emotional drive of the paintings reflects the universal experience of anxiety shared by humankind. Later ‘Anxious Men’ works are also made from ceramic tiles and mirror pieces, forming such mosaics as The Broken Five (2019), which shows a row of five figures delineated in black outlines.
Personal and collective experiences of African-Americans receive careful contemplation in Johnson’s works. In the photograph I Talk White (2003), a white substance spells out the title on a mirror, alluding to the preconceived notions of Blackness and racialisation of speech. The Hikers (2019), a seven-minute film in which two young black men run into each other on a mountain peak, explores the anxiety that comes from unexpected meetings in an isolated space.
Plants are another recurring motif in Rashid Johnson’s artworks that testify to the breadth of his practice. ‘Escape Collage’ series, begun in 2016, is made up of the artist’s own or borrowed photographic images of exotic places, featuring palm trees and the ocean, and African masks in an allusion to imaginary escapes. In 2016, Johnson installed a massive labyrinth of tropical plants in the Garage Atrium at the Moscow Museum of Art, titled Within Our Gates, which contained such items as books by W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, and Frantz Fanon, and cultural objects such as shea butter and African rugs.
Biography by Ocula | 2020
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