Rashid Johnson’s “Message to the Folks” at Museum of Contemporary Art

By Trevor Ballanger

The Museum of Contemporary Art is making headway toward the beginning of a new series of exhibitions focusing on the contemporary art movement.

The MCA, 220 E. Chicago Ave., will host its first major exhibition of Columbia alumnus Rashid Johnson beginning on April 14. Presently based in New York, Chicago-born Johnson is preparing to return to Chicago for his exhibition, “Message to the Folks,” which will focus largely on the artist’s identity as an African-American man.

“This is, for me, very exciting in that it’s the first major solo museum show that [Johnson] has ever had,” said show curator Julie Widholm. “It’s surveying the first 12 years of his career.”

Angelique Power, senior program officer at The Joyce Foundation, said Johnson is one of the most exciting figures in contemporary art today. The foundation has shown its support by donating a grant to not only the exhibition but also the community engagement projects surrounding it.

Power also said the MCA has been reevaluating the consistency of its spaces. The end result will allow increased accessibility to more challenging art. Johnson, who graduated Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in photography in 2000, will be the first artist in the MCA’s Post-Emerging Artist series, which will include artists who have already achieved success through former art presentations.

“[Johnson’s] work and his personality [are] such that he’s about contemporary culture as much as he is iconic of contemporary art,” Power said. “I think that’s really a dynamic space to be in.”

Many of Johnson’s pieces revolve around the idea of black identity and spirituality. Several works are also based on his experiences and terminating the constraints he has faced as an African-American man. Widholm said his past experiences play a major role in many of his pieces. She said he’d like the members of his audience to ask themselves what their place is in the universe and what it means to whom they are as people.

“He’s very aware of art history, of black American history, of black intellectual history,” Widholm said. “But he’s very much forward-looking. He doesn’t want to dwell in the past. But he’s very convergent of those different histories.”

The term “post-black art,” relating to artists who do not consider themselves “black artists,” has been attributed to Johnson’s work in the past. Touré, author of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to be Black Now,” has previously written about Johnson.

“I don’t think that term helps people understand what he’s doing,” said Touré. “It’s not that there is post-black art and then non-post-black art. It’s that we’re in a certain era where there’s a sort of freedom available to everybody, and he’s being satirical about blackness in some way. His art articulates what post-blackness is about, but I wouldn’t call him a post-black artist.”

One of the major ways Johnson communicates his themes in “Message to the Folks” is by challenging tradition through using new forms of media.

He’s finding ways to shift between the materials of the art and the viewer in order to find meaning, Widholm said. For one piece in particular, he uses melted black soap and wax. The black soap comes from West Africa and is believed to promote healing of the skin. In this way, he’s using non-traditional art materials that are culturally significant to create a message, Widholm said.

“One of the most important things [Johnson] does is use his materials in such a specific way to bring out all of the pre-associations embedded within his material,” Widholm said. “He’s inventing new forms and inventing new materials.”

A 90-page catalog is in the works and will feature fully-illustrated pages, approximately 50 of which will include illustrations and reproductions of Johnson’s work. Touré and University of Chicago art history professor Ian Bourland will be joining Widholm in writing three essays for the catalog. Widholm said her essay will focus on reflecting the artist’s voice, as she has had extensive conversations and studio visits with him. She also said the other two essays will not have a critical approach but will explore the different facets of Johnson’s work.

“He’s a great, thoughtful artist,” Touré said. “He’s not just painting; he’s taking it in a different direction.”

Regular admission to the Museum of Contemporary Art is $12 and $7 for students and senior citizens and is free for Columbia students, MCA members, military personnel and children under 12. The MCA is also free every Tuesday for all Illinois residents.