Rashid Johnson (b. 1977)
The New Black Yoga (2011)
Rashid Johnson was born in Chicago in 1977. He received a BFA in photography from Columbia College Chicago (2000) and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2005), where he became interested in critical theory through the study of film, video, and new media under artist Gregg Bordowitz. Working across the disciplines of painting, sculpture, photography, and video, Johnson explores his personal past and identity within the larger context of African American intellectual and creative history.
In 2001 Johnson presented a series of documentary photographs of Chicago’s African American homeless population in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s Freestyle exhibition, after which his practice broadened to encompass conceptual abstraction, mark making, and the constructed object. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos (2008) is an enlarged sculpture of the crosshairs of a riflescope. The work draws its title from a 1988 song by hip-hop group Public Enemy, who use a rendering of crosshairs in their logo. Through form, scale, and reference, the work addresses issues concerning the privatized prison system and its dependence on the incarceration of black men. In his video The New Black Yoga (2011), Johnson interpreted his experience trying to learn yoga in Berlin while struggling with a language barrier. The work incorporates humor through the haphazard, dance-like movements of five men on a beach, and symbolism in the crosshairs image that appears frequently within his oeuvre.
Johnson is perhaps best known for his shelf-like constructions, which were inspired by Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s description of a table as “something to put something on” in his 2007 book of the same title. Johnson has translated this idea into wall pieces that support items from the artist’s life, including books by sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Parliament and Al Green record covers, African shea butter, CB radios, and houseplants. These works—examples include Magic Hour and The 27th Man (both 2012)—use appropriated objects to emphasize the embedded narratives that transform a physical object into a visual symbol. Johnson’s work articulates the challenge of distinguishing an independent personal history amid the strength of a collective social history such as that of African Americans.