Rashid was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from Columbia College Chicago and a Masters of Fine Arts Degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After obtaining his Masters degree, he moved to New York City. In 2001, his work was included in the acclaimed group exhibition “Freestyle” at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Since then his work has been shown in galleries and museums worldwide including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, the Corcoran Museum of Art, Hauser & Wirth and the David Kordansky Gallery. In April 2012, Rashid presented “Message To Our Folks,” which was his first major solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. His work is in important collections such as The George Economou Collection in Athens, Greece and The Rubell family Collection in Miami, Florida. In 2013, he was invited to perform with Jay-Z at the Pace gallery for the recording of Picasso Baby.
In early 2012, Rashid worked closely with RoseLee Goldberg, the director of Performa, on a commission to re-interpret Amiri Baraka’s dutchman for Performa 13. I had the pleasure of speaking with both of them about art, the cultural influences upon the evolution of their art, and the future of multi-disciplinary artists.
JESSICA STELLER: When did you first become interested in the arts? Can you name a specific turning point in which you knew you would take the plunge into making it your career?
RASHID JOHNSON: I was always interested in the arts. When I was younger I was really interested in theater, literature and film. I always was painting and drawing. It was always something I gravitated to. I was really into sports, art, and history. Those were the three things that really kept my attention. I started at a very young age. My father was a painter and ceramicist and was always photographing things. So there was always a creative presence around me. My mother had published a few books of poetry, as well as being an academic and historian. So I grew up in a type of art fair, not the type of art fair we know today, but more of a street art fair, a more localized fair with craftsmen and local Chicago art types. I was always doodling or writing short plays, I used that as a creative outlet. As for being a professional artist, I didn’t think that was an option. I initially realized I wanted to go to art school, which in someway kind of acted as an investment in being an artist with a capital “A”. I made that decision when I was 17 while I was working for a wedding photographer, Larry Stern. He used to pay me $50 a wedding to assist him. I really got interested in photography at that point. Prior to that I was more interested in sculpture, painting, and theater. I was particularly interested in the interactive quality of portraiture. It was something that I experienced a lot with wedding photography. It inspired me to go to art school to study photography and film, my first real set of interests, although the entire time I was continuing to sculpt and paint. Photography was something I could learn and it had so many types of options as far as process. I really enjoyed learning about the process, chemistry and the magic that is inherent to that medium. Henri Cartier-Bresson calls it “The Decisive Moment” as the shutter strikes and you are catching a thirtieth of a second, or a fifteenth, or a hundred and twenty-fifth of a second. So I spent the summer prior to college studying photography as well as the history of photography and painting. I did this because I didn’t think I had as much training as other students would have had. So my mother being a historian, I naturally assumed that you needed to understand the history of art and the process of materials. You would need to have a breadth of knowledge in order to validate your studies, but apparently other people’s parents weren’t historians. I think it gave me a leg up; I became a decent mimic for historical tactics. I think young artists often are good mimics before they find their own voice. I became interested in the process and how the work gets done and why it gets done. I became interested in who did the work and what it relates to and what it references that had come before.
JESSICA STELLER: How has your mother’s background in African history influenced your work and you as a person?
RASHID JOHNSON: It had a very strong influence on me as a young person because of my mother’s interest and investment in the African space. My mother besides being a historian was an African American woman who married a Nigerian man. I had this kind of dual identity. One that was very interested in my African heritage and identity and one that was conscious of my black identity as an American.
JESSICA STELLER: How did growing up in 1980’s Chicago influence the development of your personal identity?
RASHID JOHNSON: Chicago was really a complex place. It suffers from the kind of segregation that can really deform a city’s ability to understand tolerance. In some ways I experienced that more in my later years because where I grew up in Evanston, which is the first suburb north of Chicago, my neighborhood was very diverse. I grew up around so many different people with so many different economic backgrounds and races that I saw a tremendous amount of diversity as a young person. So I kind of thought that’s how the world was. My early years didn’t feel like the segregation that Chicago is known for. There were times when we were living in the city when I became conscious of it, but really after I left college is when I became more hyper- aware of the separation between the races in Chicago. It was alarming and upsetting. Don’t get me wrong–I love Chicago, but there was a lot of anger along the lines of race and a lot of my earlier work explores those issues.
JESSICA STELLER: The titles of many of your pieces are references to music such as Funkadelics “Cosmic Slop,” The Art Ensemble of Chicago–Old Time Religion [Message to Our Folks], Mahavishnu Orchestra’s “Between Nothingness and Eternity.” Can you discuss what music influenced you and who are some of your more current influences as well?
RASHID JOHNSON: I think my serotonin levels go up when I listen to music. It’s something that I really get joy from. For me art can sometimes be a struggle because I think art is a lot of decision-making. Decision-making is very difficult for people. So music has always helped me participate in this complex decision-making. I really get a lot of joy from music and I’m really inspired by it. A lot of the titles come from avant-garde jazz and free jazz which is all about that unrecognizable and undetermined space of unbridled improvisational creativity. I also love the whimsy and brutality of hip hop and rock and roll. I love the diversity of it and the complexity and I love that it makes you feel so many different ways. The agency it has to affect us is almost like nothing else. I think borrowing titles from it is almost like paying homage to what it has given me.
JESSICA STELLER: Can you talk about the use of material objects, and how they play a role within your body of work? Can you discuss the idea of healing within your work?
RASHID JOHNSON: My relationship with my materials has changed over time. They function both as signifiers as well as materials that I consider being offering materials of my conversation. For example, my use of shea butter. I was really interested in the idea of applying an “Africaness” to oneself. Shea butter is a common African street-based material that’s being sold on street tables or in small Africa shops in Chicago and New York City. I found it to be almost like an investment in the idea of Afrocentrism. I thought it was some sort of opportunity to discover your “Africaness”. These materials have a utility and provide an opportunity to apply them directly to your body, almost like coating yourself in an “Africaness”. I would say it’s almost like an identity exploration. I was really interested in both shea butter and black soap for those reasons. The conceptual artist in me was looking to explore those dual meanings of those materials. The artist and practitioner in me started to become more familiar with the makeup of those materials and the capabilities of those materials. They became my materials, which I knew how to manipulate. That kind of dichotomy between their familiarity as art materials exclusively and also their signifying space is the dichotomy that still keeps me interested in using them as my materials.
JESSICA STELLER: What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?
RASHID JOHNSON: I don’t think I have any specific emotion or feeling or idea that I want the viewer to walk away with. I would like for them to see some contradiction. I think the work is loaded with contradictions between the romantic, the critical, the intellectual, and the poetic. I would like them to feel the full embrace of those contradictions in a similar way that I negotiated them while making the work.
JESSICA STELLER: Can you talk about how humor plays an influence on your work? Who are some influential comedians for you?
RASHID JOHNSON: I think comedy is the most difficult art form. Comedians are the most amazing artists we have. I say that because in almost any other art form you are looking for any series of emotions and can be rewarded with any kind of reaction. In comedy there is really just one thing you are looking for and that is for the audience to laugh; everything else is secondary. The initial complex response is what matters most. It is incredibly difficult to get that one response, but so many people have done it so well. Growing up I was influenced by Richard Pryor and listened to him with my father. From my generation it was more Eddie Murphy. As I got a little older, I got into comedians who had a political agenda. I started reading more Dick Gregory. I really enjoyed “write me in!” which was hilarious. That led me to Chris Rock who would make me laugh to tears. Then Dave Chappell who I think has one of the most interesting views on race and society that I have ever come across. I was a young artist in school when The Chappell Show came out. He was singing my tune. He was playing with race and playing with more contemporary concerns. It’s a big reward for me to see viewers get some of my jokes; they get a little taste of what my sense of humor is like.
JESSICA STELLER: How did you select Amiri Bakara’s 1964 play dutchman to reinterpret for Performa?
RASHID JOHNSON: I’ve been a big fan of Amiri Bakara for many years. I have a particular fondness for his early work as LeRoi Jones, which I was introduced to when I read my mother’s copy of The dead Lecturer. It’s a fantastic book of poems. It’s always been on my mind. About eight years ago, I saw dutchman performed at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York where the original performance took place. I fell in love with it. So many things that were happening in the play are interesting to explore now. It brought me full circle. I also wanted to include the bathhouse venue. The bathhouse had become somewhat of a religious space for me. It’s a place I go at least once a week. It’s a place where I can get away and think. When I was in graduate school in Chicago, I would go to the Russian and Turkish baths on Division Street, which is actually where I will be performing the play again in September of 2014. I would hang out there. There was always a very diverse group of people there. Jesse Jackson would be there. Judges would be there. Guys from all sorts of fringe political parties would be there. I fell in love with the venue and the heat and the craziness of it all. dutchman fits in there perfectly.
JESSICA STELLER: For your Performa piece dutchman; the performance was live and interactive. Can you talk about how you prepared for the piece? What was your own reaction to the viewer’s immediate responses?
RASHID JOHNSON: This was a really new and different experience for me. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of experience as a theater director. I would probably say I had zero since the eighth grade. It was an interesting opportunity to let go. So much of what I do is what I’m in control of. I am the builder, I am the conceiver, and I am the performer. So it was really new to put my work in the hands of someone else. That someone else being the actors. So I think the big part of it was me casting people I really trusted with Amiri’s words and trusted to bring the play to life for me as a director. I was doing a lot of learning and teaching throughout the process. It’s interesting to lean on others and behave more collaboratively. It’s something that wasn’t really used to. It was a very interesting process and one that I very much enjoyed.
JESSICA STELLER: Who would be your dream collaboration?
RASHID JOHNSON: I would love to collaborate with Joseph Bueys and Jean- Luc Godard. For the living collaboration though, it would be the author who wrote White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty.
JESSICA STELLER: Can you discuss how the performance with Rashid came together? What was your response when he chose to reinterpret Baraka’s dutchman? How did you help guide him through the process?
ROSELEE GOLDBERG: I have known Rashid for some time, and have always been intrigued by the four-dimensionality of his work. It has a way of coming off the walls, of enveloping one completely. It might be a freestanding fixture plus video, or an image tucked into a mirror. Whether photograph, sculpture or sound piece, he has always moved fluidly between media and combined references from art history, cultural history, politics. I have always thought of his work as dramatic and content-driven. When we originally met,
I essentially told him that he had an open invitation for whenever he might be ready to work on a performance piece. Then, in time for Performa 13, he said he had an idea which he wished to discuss, which was an interpretation of Amira Baraka’s dutchman, and that he wanted to present in the Russian & Turkish Baths on 10th Street. I have to admit that the venue came as quite a surprise – it has such a long and notorious history in New York–but I also thought it was a fantastic idea.
JESSICA STELLER: A lot of people wanted to know where the idea of setting the performance in a bathhouse came from and how it affected his overall theme? How did the viewers respond?
ROSELEE GOLDBERG: Rashid explained that he is a regular at Turkish baths, always has been, and that he’d been wondering how he might use the baths as the site for a work. He also explained that he grew up in Chicago and how going to the bathhouse was especially interesting as a young man given the relaxed setting and the many political players from the city who would gather there. People where standing around in boxer shorts with towels draped over their shoulders – involved in conversations about politics and current affairs – and he said there was a directness to their conversations that he was privy to and that he found especially compelling and provocative. He wanted to find a way to use that atmosphere as material for a work.
Baraka’s dutchman takes place on a subway in the middle of the summer so the baths were the perfect transposition of the scene — from the heat of the subways to the heat of the baths. The closeness of players and riders to the action was also a factor in how the audience would respond. I went to one of the early run-throughs; the mood was uncomfortable. As on a subway, one is similarly very close to strangers and also sometimes, too close to their personal conversations. As the play begins, one hears a white woman starting up a conversation with a black man, whom she begins to insult and provoke, and one listens as a confrontation, that eventually turns violent, escalates between the two characters. So the conversation is heating up and the atmosphere is heating up as you follow them from one space of the baths to the next. The audience is in robes and slippers, and very self- conscious and aware of everyone around them. This made for an intense rendering of the play. The claustrophobia, the heat, the imminent violence make your blood boil, and, you’re doing nothing to stop them. You’re both physically and emotionally uncomfortable. By the time the crisis hits, everyone is pouring water over their heads, because of the heat. The venue and the play were in perfect tandem.
JESSICA STELLER: Rashid has gradually crossed over into experimenting with performance-based work; (Magic numbers was one of his early performance pieces) do you see a gradual increase in object-based artists crossing over into performance?
ROSELEE GOLDBERG: Yes, performance is more visible these days and is of interest to visual artists whom one does not necessarily associate with live work. Performa has opened things up in this regard – we work very closely with our artists, and offer support in terms of producing, finding collaborators as needed, locating the most appropriate venue to ‘frame’ the work in the optimum way. We make it possible to realize quite complex works, like Rashid’s performance, or Ragnar Kjartansson’s “Bliss” which was a twelve-hour rendering of the last aria of Mozart’s Marriage of figaro. Artists who have stepped into performance for the first time through Performa have talked about the impact of the live on their subsequent work; of how it is possible to connect directly with viewers; the importance of having a dedicated space and time to absorb the many layers and ideas contained in the work. I am also intrigued by how many artists are ready to step into an area that they might not have worked in before. But then that’s the nature of being an artist, of finding new ways to imagine their world…
I am lucky enough to spend time with Performa artists and watch the process of making a live piece evolve over many months. There is an increased complexity to their ideas that emerges over time. There is also a sense of responsibility towards viewers, of creating a relationship between viewer and artist. The person who comes out of Rashid’s performance will, from that time on, read his work quite differently. The viewer walks away from Dutchman seeing his body of work in a whole new light.