Artist Rashid Johnson Explores the “Stranger” in Us All
Artwork: Rashid Johnson. Untitled Clowns, 2017, Ceramic tile, black soap, and wax. 185.4 x 240 x 6.4 cm / 73 x 94 1/2 x 2 1/2 in.
In 1953, James Baldwin published the essay “Stranger in the Village” in Harper’s magazine in which he recounted the culture shock of life as a young African-American man in a small village in Switzerland. The people he encountered were distinctly provincial to the point that manners and etiquette were the least of their concerns. They did not welcome Baldwin so much as the openly gawked, so caught up as they were in the physicality of race.
“…it must be conceded there was the charm of genuine wonder and in which there were certainly no element of intentional unkindness, there was yet no suggestion that I was human: I was simply a living wonder,” Baldwin writes, perfectly summarizing the power that cognitive dissonance has over the mind that has lost self-control.
Grace is more than a virtue, it is an act of dignity; to be able to perceive the experience of the other is to understand the role one has to play. To disregard this, whether out of lack of care or awareness, creates a visceral sense of alienation, codifying the outsider as strange: a stranger.
Most people are conscientious of their otherness when they step outside their comfort zones; it is only those who are extremely extroverted or self-involved who escape the feeling of not belonging to that which is not theirs by birthright.
American artist Rashid Johnson understands this. A native of Chicago born to an African-American mother and a Nigerian father, Johnson inherits the complexities of the diaspora with a mind that questions rather than assumes. When one is both insider and outsider, it’s harder to wrap yourself in the blankets of entitlement that so many use to sleep at night; reality is far less neat and orderly than the human mind might like.
In accepting a two-month residency at Hauser & Wirth Somerset in England, Johnson embarked on a study of the idea of otherness would be clear as day. Taking Baldwin’s essay for the title, Rashid Johnson. Stranger is now on view through September 10, 2017.
The exhibition reconfigures Johnson’s favorite themes like anxiety and escape, as well as preferred forms including large format collages featuring foliage and African masks printed on vinyl that are organized in kaleidoscopic form then hit with dripping splats of black soap; installations with books, plants in ceramic pots made by the artist, and mounds of shea butter heaping and heaving with richness and life; and drawings made with oil on a cotton rag.
The choice of books speak to issues on Johnson’s mind, with titles including Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. “There is not love of life without despair about life,” Camus wrote, beautifully summarizing the balance Johnson strikes in his work.
To those versed in Johnson’s works, Stranger is a sumptuous continuation along the path that he has crafted for himself throughout his life. For those who are strangers to the work, the exhibition is a brilliant introduction to one’s blind spots.
In the June 4 edition of The Guardian, William Fowler gracefully reveals the ways in which his presumptions and defenses met their comeuppance with Johnson’s mastery of the conversation of race, politics, and art. The story perfectly encapsulates the dialectic between the insider and the outsider by revealing the interplay between the two. A stranger is only strange when you are out of the loop.
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.