Black Soap and Wax
In museums across the world, Rashid Johnson ’00 uses objects of healing to explore black identity.
Three Persian rugs on the floor. On top of one rug: a zebra skin. On top of the striped skin: a sealed bag of natural shea butter. Upon closer inspection: a black mark near the head of the zebra. This mark—made of black soap and wax—is the branding of Chicago-born artist Rashid Johnson ’00. In a 2012 exhibition at the David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, this juxtaposition of luxury and natural materials is the beginning of a conversation: with Johnson’s viewers, his work, other artists, and, more importantly, the world.
Though he began as a photographer, Johnson’s exploration of materials led him to become a true multidisciplinary artist. As a photographer, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, and beyond, Johnson has been recognized globally for his engagement with blackness and American identity, as well as his use of domestic materials, including shea butter, wax, tile, plants, and wood flooring.
Johnson’s work has been exhibited internationally and is included in collections at the Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Art Museum, Detroit Institute of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and Whitney Museum of American Art. This fall, Johnson wrapped up filming his forthcoming cinematic adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 novel Native Son, based on the 1940 novel by Richard Wright, which will be his directorial debut.
Johnson talked with DEMO about the trajectory of his art-making.
The Meat and Potatoes
Johnson began his career working as a wedding photographer in high school. “I liked being in the world and making images,” he says. “At that point, I realized I wasn’t built for a desk job or a stagnant job.”
Having little darkroom experience, Johnson was drawn to Columbia College Chicago’s focus on the technical aspects of photography. The program taught the “meat and potatoes” of how to take a picture and develop images. One of his most influential experiences was working in the “X-Tech” laboratory under Jno Cook, where students experimented with different processing techniques. There, Johnson began using a 19th-century photo process of applying organic pigment (Van Dyke Brown) to his prints with a brush, giving them a paint-like texture. He returned to this photo-processing technique for many images in his 2001 Seeing in the Dark series, which consisted of portraits of homeless black men in Chicago.
Johnson’s first major exposure came through the 2001 Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. At 24, Johnson was the youngest of the 28 featured emerging black artists. His featured works were three portraits from Seeing in the Dark: “Johnathan,” “Johnathan with Hands,” and “Jonathan’s Eyes.” Curator Thelma Golden labeled the show as “Post-Black,” a term used to characterize work by artists keenly aware of their blackness and engaging with concepts influenced by, but not exclusive to, the black experience.
The ambiguity of the genre interests Johnson. “I don’t think it’s an all-encompassing [label] equipped to describe any specific artist’s practice,” he says. “I appreciate that [Golden] included me amongst a group of artists that I continue to respect.”
No Chicken, No Egg
Photography wasn’t Johnson’s only artistic foray at Columbia. He also studied painting under McArthur Binion and explored sculpture and installation. After graduating, he pursued an MFA in Photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, he was encouraged to consider how other mediums could influence and exist in tandem with photography.
His natural progression from photography to multimedia work stemmed from constant examination of his own ideas and the philosophies of how images, palettes, and textures can combine to tell a story. His piece “The Shuttle” features items propped on shelves: bowls of shea butter, a plant, and copies of Dick Gregory’s Write Me In!, among others. The shelves are backed with a wax-splattered mirror: In facing the work, viewers must also face their own reflection.
“My work provides a platform, a set of signifiers and ideas that exist in my thinking, in my history, and in my negotiation of the world,” Johnson says. “[These] can be defined by the viewer as things that I’m thinking about or things they could, would, or want to be thinking. …My work isn’t intended to necessarily guide you to any specific conclusion.”
Through it all, Johnson maintains themes of identity, philosophy, narrative, performance, and a complex layering of concepts and ideas.
“For me, there’s no chicken, there’s no egg,” says Johnson. “I’m just making art. Sometimes, it’s based around an idea or set of concerns, sometimes it’s based around a theme, and sometimes it’s based around current emotional responses to the world that we’re living in.”
Healing is an inherent theme in Johnson’s work, which he references by including domestic materials like shea butter and black soap (both of which have historically been used in African diasporic cultures). These items are most explicit in his installation work. In “Antoine’s Organ,” black steel scaffolding displays shelves of plants, books, shea butter sculptures, wood, and more. Though stationary, the work changes every day: plants flowering, dying, and literally transforming the space around them. In the same way that plants are fragile, so are humans, a concept that Johnson thinks has been overlooked in American art.
“I think a lot of the time, the artist is seen as—particularly in the history of American art—this heroic figure who is tackling large and complicated canvases and gesture, and there’s a machismo or masculinity that I don’t think is really representative of the human condition in the way that it’s interpreted,” says Johnson. He is more interested in the artist’s “existential conundrum” of exposing oneself to an audience, and how doing so is about fragility and complexity. Johnson gravitates towards domestic materials because everyone is an artist or has access to art materials “That familiarity,” says Johnson, “allows people a level of access into my work and my ideas.
A Seat at the Table
Throughout his career, Johnson’s work has negotiated his black experience. Influenced by black creators such as W.E.B. DuBois, Dick Gregory, Roy DeCarava, and Glenn Ligon, Johnson’s works explore the portrayal of the black experience and engage with ideologies around gesture and American culture.
“[My blackness] doesn’t inherently speak to everyone else’s black experience, but there’s often a commonality in certain experiences,” says Johnson. “I try to speak to my experience in the most honest way, and as a result, I think aspects of my black experience produce common themes that other people may understand and may resonate with them.”
Having established himself as a multidisciplinary American artist, Johnson sees himself in a position to shape the canon to which his work belongs. In 2012, Johnson was awarded the High Museum of Art’s David C. Driskell prize, which honors an artist or scholar based in the United States whose work makes an original and important contribution to African diasporic art.
Art-making has always held a certain responsibility for Johnson. They physical aspect of the work pushes him to continue creating. For him, art-making is a seven-days-a-week investment that includes thinking about art, reading about art, and serving as steward to his projects—sometimes going as far as literally watering the plants in his installations.
“I belong to the work as much as the work belongs to me,” says Johnson. “My life is what the Germans would call a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk,’ which is ‘art is everything.’”