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Spot On: Rashid Johnson

Rashid Johnson, Self-portrait as the black Jimmy Connors in the finals of the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Summer Tennis Tournament, 2008. Lambda print, edition of 5 + 2 AP, 60" x 48". Courtesy of the artist and moniquemeloche, Chicago.

Cultural critic Debra Dickerson, whom artist Rashid Johnson (B.A. ’00) frequently references, was among the first to articulate a new phase of African American identity in her 1995 book, The End of Blackness. Dickerson posits that “blackness is collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, just as overt racism did.” She addresses a lot of sticky questions about race and identity, provoking discussions the art world has been having for years, and the 2008 presidential campaign brought to the living rooms of mainstream America.

Are we living in a “post-black” America?

“I think there are two ways you have to try and think about that framing,” says Johnson, 31, whose New York debut was in the 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where curator Thelma Golden is often credited with having coined the term “post-black.” “One is that I am from a generation that grew up after the civil rights movement, so do I have a different perspective? Absolutely. Whether that perspective can be canned in a term like ‘post black,’ I’m not positive. Am I disappointed when it’s used? Not necessarily.”

Johnson, a native of Evanston, earned a B.A. in photography from Columbia, an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and launched his career here, showing in Chicago galleries such as Schneider, G.R. N’Namdi, Gallery 312, and Law Office. He now lives in New York and exhibits around the world, with solo shows this year at moniquemeloche and Richard Gray in Chicago, Nicole Klagsbrun in New York, Kunstmuseum Magdeburg in Germany, and annarumma 404 in Italy.

Johnson works in a variety of media, often incorporating images and materials that are symbolically loaded. “My mom always had this big jar of black-eyed peas sitting on the sink,” he says. “It’s astonishing how many black-eyed peas I ate as a child.” As an adult, he scattered those peas on canvas and spray-painted over them, using them as stencils to create the star-scapes in his recent show at moniquemeloche, “The New Escapist Promised Land Garden and Recreation Center.” And while he acknowledges the cultural symbolism of those particular beans, he’s more interested these days in the performative aspect of the work. Walking around and scattering the beans recalls the painting techniques of Jackson Pollock, as well as “uprocking,” the act of walking in a circle to define one’s space in breakdancing.

“There’s a generation of black artists before me who made work specifically about the black experience,” says Johnson. “But I think for my generation, having grown up in the age of hip-hop and Black Entertainment Television, there’s less of a need to define the black experience so aggressively to a white audience. I think it gives us a different type of opportunity to have a more complex conversation around race and identity. It’s not a weapon for me, it’s more of an interest.”

And what does he think of having this artistic conversation in the context of his country electing its first African American president? “I was very proud when Barack got the nomination,” says Johnson. “But I wasn’t proud for black people—I was kind of proud for white people.”

—Ann Wiens is the editor of DEMO.

Comments (3)

I believe that it is not correct to say that BET and hip-hop has correctly depicted what it means to be African-American. I believe it has done nothing but bottlenecked what it means to be black. In our grandparents' and parents' generation being "black" was defined by your physical appearance and this affected your everyday life and, well, has it changed? African-Americans have been going through a change culturally to redefine its culture, as once it was Afro-centric, then media-centric, and now what? The election of a half-black, fully African-American president is a proud day for all Americans because it has shown how far as a nation we have come and should not be divided among "races."

Mr. Johnson said: "having grown up in the age of hip-hop and Black Entertainment Television, there’s less of a need to define the black experience." Seriously?! If anything there's more of a need to define them because B.E.T. and hip-hop DO NOT define the black experience. Perhaps if he allowed himself to be a part of what he calls "the black experience" past what he watches on television, he'd know that.

This idea that BET and hip hop have done the job (or any sort of job) of defining the black experience is total BS and it is a shame for an African American artist with Mr. Johnson's sort of education/schooling (maybe he never got the education part) to make such a foolish statement. It has never been the job of Black artists to "define the black experience ... to a white audience". This is not the job of any artist.