Rashid Johnson - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 15, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Rashid Johnson's The Barefoot Prophet emerges from a transformative staging of repurposed red oak flooring. The oak, marked by searing iron brandings, invokes a visceral connection to racial histories in America, as indelible scars that transcend the realm of aesthetics are etched. Johnson uses custom-made branding irons, adapted from the iconic symbol of the renowned rap group Public Enemy. For the group, the gun sight crosshair motif, which was prominently featured on their albums and merchandise, carries profound significance as a stark reminder of the racial targeting faced by Black Americans.


    The charred wood is thickly layered with black soap and wax. Black soap, produced in West Africa and made from locally harvested plants and dried peels, is prized for its restorative and moisturizing properties. It is a substance intended for healing. Johnson’s swathing application of soap and wax down the center of the burnt canvas invokes an image of vain attempts to cover underlying scarring left from the brands. Yet, Johnson does not wish to push a specific meaning onto his viewer, instead inviting them to use their own experiences to create their own: “[My materials] come from personal experience and all have meanings and history for me, but they don’t mean the same thing to everyone. It’s interesting to see how different people see the same objects and create their own narratives and assign their own meanings.”i


    Just as Johnson inspires the viewer to look within themself, so, too, did the subject for which this work, The Barefoot Prophet. Elder Clayborn Martin was born into slavery in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1851 but lived most of his life as a traveling preacher. Martin Eventually made his way to Harlem, New York, where he earned the moniker The Barefoot Prophet — he had not worn shoes since a day in his youth when God told him to shed his shoes and walk on holy ground. Martin would spend his days preaching to his Harlem sidewalk audiences the truth of their inherent divinity: “Every man is the dwelling place of the Almighty! He is not in the buildings we call the churches today!”ii


    The Barefoot Prophet caught the attention of photographer James Van Der Zee, who photographed a formal portrait of Martin inside of his Harlem studio. Van Der Zee, renowned not only for his photography of Black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance but also his comprehensive documentation of the period, had become a friend of Martin. He, along with other artists of the area, would eventually organize Martin’s funeral after his passing. Over 500 people from the neighborhood were in attendance.


    In naming this work for Martin, and, by extension, Van Der Zee, we see a window into Johnson’s artistic reverence for the legacies of those who have profoundly shaped our cultural and spiritual landscapes. Johnson's choice to honor Martin and the photographer who captured his essence underscores his commitment to contextualizing his art within the rich tapestry of history and heritage. As Johnson puts it, “I come by this quite honestly. My mother’s a historian. I feel like my work is best suited when it’s contextualized. That way you can best understand the kind of conditions and concerns and obstacles and opportunities that my work provides.”iii



    i Rashid Johnson, quoted in Ange-Aimée Woods, "Five Questions: Brooklyn-based visual artist Rashid Johnson,” Colorado Public Radio News, February 21, 2014, online.

    ii  "Elder Clayhorn Martin ‘The Barefoot Prophet’ In Harlem 1851-1937," Harlem World, online.

    iii Rashid Johnson in Antwaun Sargent, “The Anxiety and Ecstacy of Rashid Johnson,” GQ, October 3, 2023, online.

    • Provenance

      David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles
      Private Collection (acquired from the above)
      albertz benda, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2017


The Barefoot Prophet

branded red oak flooring, black soap, wax and spray enamel, in 3 parts
96 1/2 x 72 1/2 x 3 in. (245.1 x 184.2 x 7.6 cm)
Executed in 2013.

Full Cataloguing

$120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for $152,400

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig 
Specialist, Head of Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279 

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 15 November 2023