Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks


Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait as the Professor of Astronomy, Miscegenation and Critical Theory at the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Center for Graduate Studies, 2008, Lambda print, 51 ½ x 73 in. (130.8 x 185.4 cm), Collection of Marilyn and Larry Fields, Chicago Photo: Luca Carrà, Milan, Italy, courtesy of annarumma404 gallery, Naples, Italy


MCA Chicago presents Chicago-born, New York–based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition, surveying the first 14 years of his career. Deftly working in a range of media—including photography, painting, sculpture, and video—Johnson incorporates commonplace objects from his childhood into his work in a process he describes as “hijacking the domestic.” The artist transforms these everyday materials—such as plants, books, record albums, photographs, shea butter, and soap—into conceptually loaded and visually compelling works that challenge entrenched ways of thinking about the black experience and emphasize its plurality.

Johnson explores the physicality of his materials to investigate the construction of identity, both visually and conceptually, in a practice that is steeped in individual experience while invoking shared cultural references. Throughout his work, he enters into dialogue with black American creative and intellectual figures whose impact has transcended race, extending the legacy of these cultural icons. Message to Our Folks, Johnson’s first major solo museum exhibition, examines how his work has developed over the course of his career.

While Johnson’s works are grounded in a dialogue with modern and contemporary art history, specifically abstraction and appropriation, they also give voice to an Afro-futurist narrative in which the artist commingles references to experimental musician Sun Ra, jazz great Miles Davis, and rap group Public Enemy, to name just a few, with various symbols including that of Sigma Pi Phi (also known as the Boulé), the first African American Greek-letter organization, and writings by civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, among others. In addition to exploring his own personal and cultural history, the artist humorously shares his metaphysical journey with us as he contemplates the creation of the universe, art, and the self.

Message to Our Folks is titled after a 1969 album by avant-garde jazz collective Art Ensemble of Chicago. The exhibition is organized by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, Pamela Alper Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. A fully illustrated catalogue, the most comprehensive documentation of Johnson’s work to date, accompanies the exhibition.

Installation view

Installation view, Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, MCA Chicago, Apr 14–Aug 5, 2012. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago