For more than a decade, contemporary artist Rashid Johnson has worked almost under the radar, turning out work presented at museums and coveted by collectors around the world.
But in the last year, the Chicago native, whose works made from everyday objects explore his own life story as well as larger issues of black identity, has garnered high-profile attention and awards from the art world. This month he opens his first major solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
“A lot of eyes are on him right now,” said Julie Rodrigues Widholm, curator of “Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks.”
“He’s an artist who has been working for 14 years and has never had a major solo exhibition,” she said. “We really felt because of that absence it was time.”
That timing is excellent. In the last year, Johnson has been included in the prestigious International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, was named a 2012 nominee for the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize and won the High Museum’s David C. Driskell prize that honors African-American art and scholarship.
The attention is appreciated, Johnson said, but he’s more interested in the discourse and dialogue around his work. “When there’s a giant buzz about you, you’re the last person to know,” he said during an interview.
Johnson, who now works in New York, uses everyday materials — everything from books to mirrors to shea butter to plants — to create sculptures that reflect his own life story while exploring the black experience. In a video on the museum website, he recalls growing up “enveloped in this Afrocentric conversation. We celebrated Kwanzaa, my mother wore dashikis.” Then “one day they weren’t wearing dashikis anymore,” he said. He uses art and humor to explore “that transition from Afrocentrism” to “your parents becoming middle-class soccer moms.”
The Chicago exhibition spans Johnson’s body of work, emphasizing the last five years. It includes references to major African-American cultural figures and influences, like W.E.B. DuBois, Miles Davis and Public Enemy, and consists of a variety of media, including photography, video, sculpture and paintings.
Johnson describes himself as a middle-class black kid growing up in the Chicago-area, interested in graffiti, theater and photography. His work, he said, often times is autobiographical.
“It’s an introduction to people of a different black experience,” Johnson said.
Widholm sees several themes running through Johnson’s work, but focuses on identity.
“He is making work that is personal to counteract the expectation of a black artist speaking for all black artists,” she said. “His references and his work allude to artists, musicians, political figures, sports figures, who in one way or another stepped outside of tradition.”
His future, Widholm said, is bright.
“I’m really excited to see how his work creates dialogue in different contexts,” she said. “There’s no limit really to what he can accomplish artistically.”
The title, “Message to Our Folks,” is taken from a 1969 avant-garde album in which musicians used found objects to make percussion and redefine jazz.
The exhibition is in Chicago through Aug. 5. It will travel to the Miami Art Museum, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Kemper Art Museum in St. Louis.
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This Week’s Celebrity Instagrams (11/26-12/2)
30 photos Launch gallery
1. Little Legend and Puddy 😍😍😍😍
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2. "You on point Phife?" "all the time,Tip". 💥 #bannedfromnormal
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3. Vegan! The Impossible burger at Crossroads
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4. Lawrence #BeforeandAfterEpisodes 1-4: 184lbs 13% body fatEpisode 8: 196lbs 8% body fat S/O @coachdaveboxing with the works outs and @kildareriordan with the nutrition
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5. Jus haaaanngin out
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6. Meanwhile back at home in Atlanta GA someone mad they not on the 🛳. 😳
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7. No limits... Photo cred: Chris Bridges @ludacris
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8. new new
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9. Apparently my 260lbs is too much for the actual vines in the Hawaiian jungles to hold me without breaking and me falling hundreds of feet. So for safety purposes, I'm forced to swing thru #Jumanjj on wires strong enough to hold 12 adult buffaloes and 1 adult Rock. #OnSet #Jumanji #IronicallyIEatBuffaloDailyForLunch #MoreManThanNatureKnowsWhatToDoWith
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10. hey ma! 🎎#wcw 💙
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11. Surprise visit to our factories!!! #GoodAmerican #USA
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13. Peachy Keen 🔥✨⚡️
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14. If this don't look thankful I don't know what does. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. #UltraBlessed #24kMagic #SweetPotatoFly
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15. Late nights @nbcmarlon with the writers... we in here!!!
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16. There goes my baaaaaaaaabbbbyyyyy #QueenKingMagic!!! We're up to something! Ira BIG!!! Stay out our buisness -
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17. You want to win every game you play but when you come home to these faces... who cares. #ILoveYouGirls best part of my day, everyday!
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18. Steady,steady..... full size jenga.. "I got this one "???? Or do I ?
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19. Cornrows kind of day 😉@dontaysavoy2 you convinced me and I love. ❤️️
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20. #BrotherlyLove #tbt
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22. #basel #TeamLOVE @kingcombs
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23. Just introduced a special screening of @directher 's groundbreaking (must see) documentary @13thfilm with my brother @themichaelealy | @unitedblackout #blackoutblackfriday
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24. Me & Vanessa Williams giving #DuckLips #Pose on the set of #DaytimeDivas @vh1 - Coming Soon to a tv near you. Lol. - My make up done by @makeupsurgeon
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25. This picture just makes me wanna praise the Lord, you hear me!!!!!! Yes Lord brotha #TEDDYCAMPBELL What a #man !!! You are everything right on this picture husband ......... #gorgeous #stylish #classy #strong #masculine #king #sexy #debonair #gentlemenstyle And that #bible in your hand just seals the deal for me (probably cause i know that, that is what helped you become just as amazing as you look😘). While my heart and mind experiences the goodness of God at #church on Sundays, my eyes experiences the goodness of Teddy😍. Amen somebody🙌🏽. "Bless the Lord oh my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name" #myman #myhusband #goodman #blackman #dapperman #godlyman #goodfather #mybestfriend
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26. Yesterday was my mama's 53rd birthday!!!!! Got to celebrate with her all day. If this is what I have to look forward to I can't wait. Looking like a soft bucket a cocoa butter. Yaaaaaaaaaas! 😍😍😍 love you mommy!
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27. "Shout out to @PureAtlanta for getting the family right"....I'm loving this jogger. 😍😍
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28. This pic warms my heart ❤️ #myLogiebeans and aunt aunt umba @itowandabraxton 😘
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29. You will always be my baby😜. #HappyBirthdayReginae #mybaby18
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30. GC "Gods Child" Red on Red SweatSuit available now at www.MonicaApparel.com ... Take Your Crown wherever you go!! I'm pictured in a Medium... Go to the site now for other options ... cc: @trukernell
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