Rashid Johnson’s Exploration of Black Escapism

Rashid Johnson is a New-York based conceptual artist who was born in 1977 in Chicago, Illinois. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Columbia College in Chicago and his Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Rashid has had numerous solo exhibitions at prestigious institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. He is known for his mixed-media works, which incorporate a wide range of materials including shea butter, black soap, ceramic tile, and plants. He explores themes of race, identity, and memory through his art, often using cultural symbols and imagery from African American history.

Since he made his mark at The Studio Museum in Harlem as the youngest artist in the seminal 2001 exhibition “Freestyle,” he has been recognized as one of the most outstanding artists of his generation.

Some of his most famous artworks include "Anxious Men" (2015), a series of large-scale mixed media works that includes painting, sculpture, and photography. The pieces feature portraits of African American men rendered in a rough, haphazard style using materials such as soap, wax, and tar. Their faces are obscured by ropes, chains, or other restraints, which creates a sense of tension and unease.

His sculpture “Monument” (2018), exhibited at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, was a different kind of monument, given its historical setting. The work explores themes of African American history as well racial and cultural identity. He invited people to interact with the gigantic collection of metal frames, potted plants, ceramics, books, sculptures, and video.

In an interview about the piece, Rashid said: “When I've made works like this in the past, I haven't necessarily given people an opportunity to enter them…to understand both its structure and its sensibility.”

Through his use of unconventional materials and techniques, Rashid seeks to defy conventional artistic categories and create an emotional and intellectual response in the viewer.

The Clark Collection has a 2016 piece of his, titled “Run”, in oil stick on paper. It’s an incredible example of his conceptual approach to art and captures the desire Black men have to escape, given the racial hostilities and anxieties that continue to exist in our society.

Rashid’s approach is deeply rooted in the history of Black aesthetic traditions, which makes his work so inspiring and thought-provoking. Read more about Johnson, the themes that run through his work, and his first solo exhibition in Asia here.

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