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Rashid Johnson

American  •  b. 1977

Biography

In 2001, Rashid Johnson made his name as the youngest participant in Freestyle, the exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem that put forward some of today’s best-known African American artists. Thelma Golden, who selected Johnson for the groundbreaking exhibition, identified at the core of his practice, “a deep engagement with the history of conceptual art, but also the history of Black people,” with his work always operating “on an emotional level and an intellectual level at once.”

Johnson’s frequent use of black soap is exemplary of the artist’s narrative embedding of a pointed range of everyday materials and objects, often associated with his childhood and frequently referencing collective aspects of African American intellectual history and cultural identity.

Insights

  • Selected museum exhibitions and performances: Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Grand Palais, Paris; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

“I was celebrating Kwanzaa, hearing this unfamiliar language, Swahili, and seeing black soap and chew sticks around the house, things that were about applying an Africanness to one’s self. Then my parents evolved into middle-class Black professionals, and I was kind of abandoned in this Afrocentric space they had created. I was forced to negotiate what that period and those objects meant for me. I saw these things, as I got older, in Harlem and in Brooklyn, being sold on the street…So I started playing with those ideas and objects on a formal level, fueled by my interest in abstraction and mark-making as well as my interest in the constructed object, in the recent shelving units, for example. How do these things become signifiers? What are these things when they no longer function in the way they were originally intended to function?”

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