How does an artist contribute his own personal story in the face of prevailing historical narratives? In this film, artist Rashid Johnson discusses the fluid nature of black identity in America and its escapist tendencies, from the Afrocentric politics of Marcus Garvey to the cosmic philosophy of Sun Ra. Johnson’s invented secret society—The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club—is a framework through which the artist humorously upends, through repetition and juxtaposition, conventional expectations of historical influence and legacy. Inspired by a story by the artist Lawrence Weiner in which one character says to another that “a table is something to put something on,” Johnson creates sculptures of shelf-like structures from materials such as black wax, mirror, tile, and branded wood. Each structure is filled with culturally resonant objects—such as Miles Davis and Ramsey Lewis jazz records, books by comedians Dick Gregory and Bill Cosby, and treatises by scholars such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Debra J. Dickerson—as well as the artist’s own photographs and hand-made objects. Featuring works from the exhibitions The Dead Lecturer (2008) and Other Aspects (2009-10), as well as works-in-progress in the artist’s Williamsburg studio.

Rashid Johnson (b. 1977, Chicago, Illinois, USA) lives and works in New York and Brooklyn, New York.

CREDITS | New York Close Up Created & Produced by: Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich. Editor: Mary Ann Toman. Cinematography: Andrew David Watson. Key Grip: John Marton. Sound: Nicholas Lindner & Nick Ravich. Associate Producer: Ian Forster. Production Assistant: Paulina V. Ahlstrom, Don Edler & Maren Miller. Design: Open. Artwork: Rashid Johnson. Thanks: Javier Cordero, Alex Ernst & Brian Lewis. An Art21 Workshop Production. © Art21, Inc. 2011. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to Rashid Johnson Makes Things to Put Things On

  1. Nettrice says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed this presentation and it got me to thinking: In the present scenario, where conservative, wealthy right-wingers continue to attacking the middle class in the U.S., it will be interesting to see what happens in black artist communities – moving from Afrocentrism/Africanness to middle class, soccer parents – and who knows where else we will try to escape to. A revival of Sun Ra/Afrofuturism is already taking place. I’d like to spend more time comparing Mr. Johnson’s work to lesser known, younger African-American artists such as Cullen Washington Jr. and Percy Fortini-Wright. Soon to come: Artworks that explore blended realities (using mobile devices and game platforms) and I can also see something else entirely happening where artists will take whatever they want from a huge wealth of knowledge to create something entirely different and new.

    This also makes me think of something Toni Morrison wrote: “The major things black art has to have are these: it must have the ability to use found objects, the appearance of using found things, and it must look effortless. It must look cool and easy. If it makes you sweat, you haven’t done the work.”

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  2. Hey Nettrice–Where’s that Morrison quote from?

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  3. hybridchic says:

    I love this short film and the layered discourse surrounding the continuum of black identity in America.


    You can find Toni’s quote in a section entitled: “Jewels Brought from Bondage” in Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: modernity and double-consciousness. I think it’s on page 78 or 79.

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  4. Nettrice says:

    Correct! Wesley, it’s part of a much longer Morrison quote on page 78 in Gilroy’s book. This section regards the “problematic relationships between politics and aesthetics.” Gilroy writes that some of these debates are a starting point for investigating contemporary black cultural expression and the “digital technology of its social dissemination and reproduction.” This is a bridge from music to other artistic modes and practices which Toni Morrison explores. It’s really good stuff and very relevant to Johnson’s work.

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