Based on exploring new ways an institution can show art, the Swedish contemporary art museum, Moderna Museet, invited one of the current leading figures in so-called post-black art, Rashid Johnson (Illinois, 1977) to collaborate with curator Hendrik Folkerts. The challenge was to find a new perspective on how to create a dialogue between Johnson’s body of work and the collection of the museum, including the likes of Mancoba, Rauschenberg, Pollock, Matisse, Sun-Ra, Joan Miró, and many others which opens a new narrative to the American artist’s work while making contemporary art history accessible to anyone. Seven Rooms and a Garden is three parallel exhibitions on display across the museum, which gives three distinct perspectives on its collection for the visitors’ eyes. How could the museum's holdings be shown in a completely new way that’s never been done before? To achieve this, Folkerts and Johnson considered the concepts of abstraction and confrontation in various ways. And yet this was very challenging: the exhibition necessarily only scratches the surface and exposes just part of the vast content the museum has in its archive. For each room, Johnson selected a song that conveys the meaning and purpose of the space.
Moderna Museet’s director Gitte Ørskou explained to us: “We invited Rashid, and through his eyes, how our collection looked and what grew out of that encounter between his art and his artistic person, as well as the collection – how can we basically show more of the collection and deep dive more into the collection? So instead of hanging in a collection for a three year period in one way, the idea was to make nine exhibitions, focusing on the collection. We wanted to explore what happens when an artist is next to us in this process. How can we challenge the normalized way of showing modern and contemporary art? We needed an artist to help us with that. There's another tone which is about a contract with the audience saying, now we're in this together.” Of course, at Moderna Museet it is all about how to make contemporary art history accessible to anyone, so the idea is presenting the collection not just through the eyes of an artist, but also in dialogue with an artist – how does the symbiosis between museum-artist-audience work? Where does the Museum stand for? And where's an artist? How do you stage art for the people? – an exploration to find new centers of narrative, a narrative to share with anyone. The museum will keep doing these presentations with a rotation of about a year and a half where each exhibition will stand. Hence they get the opportunity to show a diverse range of works from their collection, giving the audience a deeper understanding about art history.
You and curator Hendrik Folkerts have already worked together in Chicago, and you made a wonderful donation to the museum previously to this exhibition but how did this idea and opportunity of mingling your work with some of the most extraordinary contemporary artists in the world come about for you?
It's quite positive from my own personal experience. I'd like to thank everyone at the museum for this invitation. It's quite a rarity to be able to intervene in a collection in the way that Hendrik and I were able to intervene in the collection, oftentimes you can be invited to participate in any number of ways, but it's usually one of two, which is either to exhibit my work and to essentially amplify my voice and bring my own kind of concerns and ideas to fruition on the landscape of the institution, or being asked to curate an exhibition, which then takes on a different set of concerns where I invest myself in the collection, understanding and then organizing the objects inside that collection to reflect themes and concerns that are mined. In this case, it's quite hybridized that Hendrik and I were able to work quite collectively to organise our thoughts. So what often happens over the course of the exhibition that you'll see as it unfolds is that I create spaces and stages, which is also quite new to the institution. So this was an opportunity for the museum to unpack the holdings and understand the collection better. We gave each other space to understand what it was we were doing. Sometimes you can't see where his thinking ends and mine begins and vice versa. You're exposed to multiple positionings with several kinds of dichotomies, thinking which includes, of course, my works for my collection, which you see here and the work of the artist. Everyone at the museum should really be given a round of applause for giving us this opportunity.
What would you say is the key idea behind the exhibition?
Something around the idea of witnessing, and witnessing is something that is really particular to the way that I think about how we participate with art and with artworks. And by witness, I mean, that oftentimes, when we come across someone who we imagined to be a witness of something, we have an expectation for them to recount what it is they saw. So there's a huge difference between becoming a witness of an artwork and being a viewer of an artwork. So what our expectation is, for folks who come to see what it is emitted, is that they're witnesses to that. And they can later go on to recount not only to friends and family, but to strangers, what it is that they saw, so we're really using that language.
Please explain to us the idea behind the first room where some of your work is laid out alongside some works including the likes of Matisse, Ernst, Pollock, Mancoba, while Louis Amstrong sounds through the speakers in the background.
It was really colouring, what it is we're experiencing in the room. A new experience which for me is quite robust. It is an incredibly radical gesture to take that work of Rauschenberg and put it into this grid structure. Similarly, I think it would be an enormous struggle in most institutions to see such important works from their collections and holdings be placed into this grid structure, into the way that the rest of the collection begins to spill out in this kind of conversation of abstraction. My intention was in creating essentially an armature for the carrying of the language. This exhibition is partnered by contributions of my work. In this first room there’s a chair that I've made that is going to be employable for musicians to come and respond to the song that you're listening to, that lives in the background, which is a song by Louis Armstrong, originally written by Fats Waller. This is a rendition of the song that was performed in 1956. It was performed before Ghana went through its kind of post-colonial independence movement. So it's a really important moment in post-colonial African history, which encapsulates aspects of critical thinking at the time and also of black literature, a post-colonial agency that's born. The song is quite complicated in that Louis Armstrong is living in the opposite body of songs that we are most familiar with, A Wonderful World. If you're aware of that song, my film Black and Blue is in some ways, the antithesis of that song. And there's a specific moment, in the course of the lyrics for Louie says, “I'm white inside, but that doesn't help my case. Because I can't hide within my face”. It’s deeply challenging from my work historically, having grown up in a generation that had a different acceptance of colour and tradition of seeing the value of beauty itself. So to kind of juxtapose that, as well as consider the kind of radical opportunity that jazz presented, and how different religion did was to the work of many abstract painters, particularly in American dialogue.
How do you see your body of work here represented along with the rest of the contemporary artists from the museum’s collection?
I'm not positive as an artist and I don't pretend to be a curator. I really wanted it to be a space for Henrik to make decisions that he thought were effective and representation [representative] of the collection he did. So with me, in my project, my influences are the antecedent, my own kind of themes in mind. Almost each and every artist that you see on that grid has had a significant impact for me, with the exception of a few, but they're still kind of informing the dialogue.
As we walk into the next rooms we stumble upon one of your first works the (Untitled) God painting.
This is a kind of pivot into a spiritual kind of exploration in my project. It's been a journey in which I start from a position with my mother being an academic, where my ambition and concerns were almost wholly critical and invested in a theoretical history. It was as much about thinking how an artwork comes to fruition, kind of pivots and changes and evolutions that then lead us to this what I consider to be a spiritual awakening, which is the one called God paintings, and they're this kind of examination with the spiritual condition that is evolved. Laying down one day on a beach and closing my eyes as I come searching for how a higher power could impact my thinking and seeing the red behind the eyelids as I close my eyes, and then determining for myself that I would call that red dot. [It] all comes on the heels of a long battle for me with substances and [as] a sober man of nine years – thinking about the kind of condition and complexity of how one navigates the expectations that we have for spirituality for higher powers for God, and imagining those things itself. So to put myself in dialogue with him is like taking a shot of heroin that is quite pure. Whereas filtered through the work of artists like David Hammons, Richard Prince, how Duchamp's influence and concerns have penetrated art history.
The next room includes a huge bed surrounded with a series of Matisses as a preamble to the four walls with your iconic paintings of black and blue eyes patterns Bruise dressing up the entire space. If you could please explain to us the significance of these works.
The room it’s really about colouring. What it is we're experiencing. For me, it was really quite robust. This is a group of paintings that was originally started in 2021. And it was kind of coming on the heels of what we'd experienced in 2020, during the pandemic, and at that time., I don't know where we're at during the pandemic. That feeling of I don't know what the hell's going around the world which has changed dramatically. Maybe it just eliminated some of the things that we already knew about it. In this context in 2020, I made a series of paintings that were red paintings, which were kind of a quite dramatic red. And were meant to be a recognition of the kind of alarming condition and space that we were all occupying really as an audience and I call these paintings Audiences, and then you can feel it when you're in the space like you're being more witty. You are witnessing if you can take on the reference of these characters that you see repeated. And I call these characters anxious men, and it's in some ways a representation of the anxiety that is inherent in my experience at that time, and maybe in some of yours too, but it's intended to be, in some ways, a representation of the collective anxiety. The paintings in that room, which I call Bruise paintings were titled that specifically because they again, reference what I consider to be a liminal space, which is bruising. Bruising is the space after what would be maybe a blunt force trauma. And it's a representation of the process of healing. The black and blue hues obviously, it's quite linked to the Louis Armstrong style that you hear when you enter the first room. Black being black and blue, these words represent this idea of a bruising, our sense of black and blue and this appetite for witnessing and its representation and illustration, of themes of anxiety and concern.
Right after, we enter Home, an installation artwork you created early this year which includes a grid display with piles of books, plants, lighting, and shea butter sculptures.
There's a theme that runs throughout the course of this exhibition and it's this idea of an invitation. Invitation is really something that my project has been invested in, as, as a theme and as a concept. And as a principle. I talked about when I was a younger artist, or maybe even previous to knowing what it was, I wanted to be, but had an interest in art, and I would visit the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. And at that museum, there were works by Salah, which is the reference here, which also is obviously, in many ways referenced by the grid of the armature and the structure in room one, but also the work of an artist, Carl Andre. He makes an invitation with some of the works that he included in that collection, and many others shove the steel plank worse than what you were invited to walk on the surface, if you are familiar with the opportunity that you can. And so as a young man, my friends, and I would go to the museum, and we started using the Carl Andre planks as breakdancing mats. And I'm not sure that there's a world to which Carl Andre could have predicted that younger when you come into his work and use that invitation to amplify our voices and bodies and quite different ways, that started me thinking about the the inherent kind of invitation as I saw it by a lot of the work of the artists that we consider to be minimalist. What you see in the work like this is kind of the occupation, these grid forms and I thought to myself, what would I put inside it if I wanted to occupy it? The idea of filling in the spaces that were left vacant is an opportunity for dialogue, and not necessarily an act of disposition, but an active position and discourse and dialogue with art history. And so my choices for inclusion are the materials and signifiers that are precious and important to my thinking: one being shea butter, which are the West African products, which you see, moving throughout the structure. Shea butter is quite interesting, it's a material that people often use for healing. It's a moisturiser that people would use for healing. It's something that people would use for cooking. It's got all of this incredible utility, and all this incredible history. My mother's father, kind of invested in Afrocentrism, my mother is an African history professor. So I've had this fascinating coming engagement with Africa from a distance for so long, and to kind of take on the signifier of this material, and then use this as an opportunity to kind of fill this space or these series of voids. Also you can see the books, things that have come to form my thinking, in particular The Sovereignty of Quiet, which is a book by Kevin Quashie. Also writers like Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, Claudia Rankin, Red Mountain, I mean, there's all of these kinds of sources for how it is. I kind of come to the way that I think and you see those books lined up oftentimes in multiplicity, because I like to think of them as mark making tools, as much as I'd like to think about them as delivery systems for information.
How do you manage to keep the plants in perfect shape under the museum's light for such a long period?
It's a fascinating thing, and something I've learned from these bodies of work. And it wasn't necessarily part of the initial intention was that when you put plants into a space, a huge amount of empathy is born of the audience, because people will come in and they say, “who's going to take care of the plant or who's going to be the nurturer on these things”, they don't care about the people starving outside, necessarily, but they do care considerably about the plants that are inside. And so this idea of empathy, and inviting empathy into a space, and kind of how that affects and impacts the way that you look. And again, becoming a witness to an artwork, I think is a deeply impactful opportunity. It's something that I've learned, as a result of making these works more than they were the original intention of them. So this opportunity for empathy, lives in the center of how these works function.
The last room in the exhibition displays your 8-minute film Black and Blue where we can see you at home with your wife and child with different scenes of your everyday life.
It's fascinating for me, because I think this film does such an incredible job about telling on one's self. I have such an investment in language and surrounding these works with language. But this works because of its relationship to melancholy, and relationship to the mundane. It just tells on itself. It's an opportunity for me to kind of shut up [laughs] It's an appetite for me to shut up and let the work do that speaking. Now I'm happy to talk about it, I'm so invested, and what its potential is and the time for me that it represents an idea of self portraiture and the complexity that's born of self portraiture, but I invite you guys to watch it. The song was made by the pianist and friend Baldwin who scored the film for me and someone who I've worked with previously on installations and sculptures.
How important is video art in your body of work?
I come by it honestly, is what I'd say. Meaning that I think of my project as constituting work. I don't have a huge separation between myself as an artist and myself as an individual. So I just kind of produce and make what I feel is appropriate when I get up out of bed.
Did you film and edit it yourself?
Oh, yeah. I filmed and wrote the script. Yes, every aspect.
Then the choices of medium for you, is it about finding the right channel or method to express or convey a particular concept in the best way?
Absolutely, as far as medium choices, it's medium. I'm a post medium artist, meaning that I don't think about medium specificity, I think about the concerns that need to be brought to fruition in artwork. And then I've chosen the medium that I think is most effective at delivering that message.
One last question, in your film Black and Blue, apart from some everyday life scene of you with your family or brushing your teeth, we see you sitting at your kitchen table eating oysters. Why oysters?
It is a quote from Zora Neale Hurston, in her book How It Feels to Be Coloured Me, she says “Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”