Artist Rashid Johnson, Director of HBO’s “Native Son,” on Escapism and Upending the Notion of the “Monolithic Experience”
Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, the artist Rashid Johnson had a “mixed bag”—racially, at least—of close friends. There were, he says, “four black guys, two Asian guys, two Jewish guys, a white English guy.…” They still keep in touch today via a text chain. This perspective, combined with the one ingrained in him by his Ph.D. history professor mother, who introduced him from a young age to the works of 20th-century African American writers such as Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington, and his tinkerer father, who owned a Wicker Park electronics shop, led to a deep, contextualized curiosity about the human condition: who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going.
This multicultural (and intellectual) background continues to feed Johnson—as water and light would a plant—growing his insatiable appetite for better understanding the richness, complications, and contradictions of being human, each of us with our own roots, carrying our own energies—no one necessarily a part of any “monolithic experience.” It has also naturally led him to explore the social, cultural, and political realities of being a black man in today’s world. His multidisciplinary practice, which spans painting, drawing, sculpture, filmmaking, and installation art, is both biographical and collective.
Underlying much of Johnson’s work is the idea of escapism—that each of us, on some level, yearns for another reality. Such a narrative is at the core of his directorial debut, HBO’s Native Son, released earlier this year and based on the 1940 Richard Wright novel of the same name (the screenplay was written by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks). It is also at the heart of “The Hikers,” a ballet film shot on the side of a mountain in Aspen, currently on view at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City (through Nov. 10) and opening on Nov. 12 (through Jan. 25, 2020) at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where it will be shown alongside several other works by Johnson, including ceramic mosaics, paintings, and a large-scale sculpture.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Johnson talks with Spencer Bailey about the steep challenge of turning Wright’s famed novel into a feature film; using materials such as shea butter, black soap, and plants in his artworks; why he remains somewhat ambivalent about the idea of “wokeness”; and his ongoing fascination with the complexity and diversity of not only blackness but also whiteness.
Johnson discusses the role of time in his multifarious art. “It’s impossible for me to actually categorize a linear or structured time in my work,” he says.
Johnson opens up about the tall order and weighty process of turning Richard Wright’s Native Son into a feature film for HBO.
Johnson reflects on his upbringing, what he learned from the books in his house, and the cultural influences his historian mother exposed him to. He also discusses his art studies at Columbia College in Chicago and after that at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Johnson describes how he began his career in photography, and how his work developed into various mediums—including film, painting, and sculpture—from there. He also talks about using materials such as shea butter and black soap.
Johnson concludes by discussing two of his film works, “The New Black Yoga” (2011) and “The Hikers” (2019), that explore escapism.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today in the studio we’ve got the artist Rashid Johnson. Welcome, Rashid.
RASHID JOHNSON: It’s great to be here.
SB: This being a podcast that’s about time, I wanted to start on that subject. Time is a very common feature in your work, and often it’s through different cultural markers, usually all going back to your upbringing, which was just outside of Chicago. Talk to me a little bit about that. How do you think about time in the context of the work you do?
RJ: I mean, it’s a really interesting question. It’s something that’s been challenging for me in the work for many years. I guess—and you alluded to this—my [upbringing] has something to do with [time]. My mother is a historian, and so, in a lot of ways, it felt like, growing up, time was laid out very differently, because we talked a lot about the past and about how the past could affect the future, and it really just kind of stuck with me—a lot of that. Just thinking about the images that were around the house, whether they were posters of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and just kind of thinking about that time, right? Or it was a lot of the literary and philosophical references on the bookshelves in our house, and how that kind of started to help me organize when something happened or how it was antecedent to another experience.
I make a lot of references to a book in particular, called The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual [by Harold Cruse], that was really kind of scary, on my mother’s bookshelf when I was young. Just seeing that and thinking [that] at some point I was maybe going to have to engage with it, and then realizing that it ended with the poet and activist [Everett] LeRoi Jones. I thought, “Where does it go from there?” Right? This series of rhizome threads and veins that were started and stopped, and as a result, I think time very much belongs in my work—but at the same time, it’s almost kind of invisible or flattened out.
SB: Right, and something that’s interesting about it is, it’s like, you’re really encouraging conversation to happen through your work, often through ambiguity, complexity, contradiction—but it’s really about shared connections, bringing people together in ways they might not expect, which, of course, all connects back to time in really interesting ways. When it comes to this idea of flattened time, in some ways do you think that’s the notion of the “timeless”?
RJ: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s definitely one way to look at it, this idea of timelessness, or this idea of kind of cannibalizing time, in a way. Of taking it all in and then redelivering it in different form, right? Like hijacking certain narratives or certain ideas of structure. In [my] earlier photographs, I was really interested in the work of James Van Der Zee, a photographer who was most known for his photographs [from] the Harlem Renaissance, but I was using stylistic choices that were like his, that felt quite contemporary but were definitely referential to the way that he made images and to the aesthetic choices of a lot of his models, but to me they felt like a “now” space, and they also were meant to speak toward a kind of future, or a misunderstood future, or a forgotten past.
In all honesty, it’s really quite interesting to me. As much as I am conscious of time and how it functions, because my work is committed to reinvestigations of the canon—whether it’s the literary one or one that discusses the visual arts or music—because it’s so cyclical, those mediums and so many of the references that are contemporary are actually born of previous influencers. It’s almost impossible for me to actually categorize a linear or structured time in my work or, oftentimes, in the work of others.
SB: Right. Yeah, you mentioned reinvestigating the canon, and your work, of course, also kind of reimagines history, which, I’m sure, connects on some level to your mother’s work. Let’s talk Native Son—the new film is your feature directorial debut. Obviously a very loaded story, in many ways, to reconstruct, rethink, reconfigure. How did you go about taking this 1940 Richard Wright novel and making it something for the screen today?
RJ: It was filled with danger, and I’m not that courageous a person, necessarily. [Laughs] I mean, it’s not as if I looked at Richard Wright’s novel and said, “I want to put myself in harm’s way [to retell] this story.” I came by it quite honestly, and again, to reference my youth, I read it when it was about 16. It was a book given to me by my mother.
SB: Right—who had told you that she actually didn’t really like the book.
RJ: She did not, yeah. She really struggled with that character [Bigger Thomas]. Anyone speaking to a generation prior to theirs thinks that somehow there was something misunderstood [or] that maybe I would understand differently. I actually embraced the book quite early and thought about Wright’s protagonist, Bigger Thomas, and his relationship to the time that he lived [in] and to the idea of the antihero. I thought that that character was incredibly complicated, and then about how it would function in a different time than the one that Wright produced for his story to exist.
It just kind of fluidly kept evolving. There were reference points in other films and other things that I was interested in, whether it was the film starring [and with a soundtrack by] Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, and that kind of antihero, [or] Melvin Van Peebles and his seminal Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. There were all these references to these black outsiders, these black protagonists who didn’t follow an easily trodden path, who were complicated, who often didn’t necessarily make the kinds of decisions that we would all hope that they would’ve made, and I saw Wright’s character in the existential form that way. I mean, of course, Wright expatriated—in the, I think, mid-forties or early fifties—to Paris. [Editor’s note: Wright moved to Paris in 1946.] So thinking about his relationship to a lot of existential writers, and just the negotiation between those spaces and the naturalism that is oftentimes attributed to him was something for me to think [about, like], Oh, well, how do I explore this space? It’s a deeply complicated story, and it’s hard to read—it’s hard to watch.
SB: It’s hard to watch. [Laughs]
RJ: Yeah, it is.
SB: I’m interested, also, in how you create a character that is not only out there to show how unique he is as a human, but how distinctive the black experience is, period. We oftentimes color these things in very simple terms, and I think it’s interesting how this character in particular—he’s, like, a punk rock kid, he’s got green hair, he’s living a totally different thing than we might see portrayed on television, [or] we might read about in the news. He is, frankly, a really special character, and I think when you get into that character, you understand a much larger experience than a stereotype.
RJ: No, no question about it. I, honestly, grew up railing against the idea of the monolithic black experience, and it’s something that started for me quite early, and it started where I grew up, in the North Side of Chicago, in Evanston, which is the first suburb north of the city, just a couple blocks north of Howard Street, which is the Chicago border. It was just really quite diverse. It was, I think, maybe forty percent African American, forty percent white (a lot of those white folks were Jewish), and then a good healthy mix of Asian and Latino folks. In that place there wasn’t necessarily one way to be anything, and as much as I talk about railing against the black monolithic experience, I also rail, more recently, in the exploration of the white monolithic experience.
SB: Right, and there’s so much being written about that right now, on both sides. [Editor’s note: Among new books we recommend on the subject are Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, released in August 2019, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, from 2018.]
RJ: There is. It’s a really interesting space, to be honest. Whiteness is a fascinating space, and I think we’re finally starting to open some of the doors to having a discussion about its complexity, and its density, and its diversity. But thinking about the character that was born for the film—the Bigger that I, kind of, helped conjure—yeah, he’s different. He’s different in a lot of ways. I mean, he’s definitely a punk, he’s an outsider, he seems like he’s kind of in the throes of a existential crisis to some degree. He’s figuring out how to contribute to a world that I think he is often challenged by. It’s also his youth. I mean, he’s in his early twenties, and anybody who’s been through that time has some feeling about what that stage in life is like—and throw in the fact that you’re an African American kid from the North Side of Chicago who has a different kind of cultural sensibility than maybe a lot of the folks around you, and I imagine that conundrum can become even more complicated. I think that’s how this character unfolds.
SB: Right, and he goes and works for this wealthy white family. Was that related at all to things you saw in Evanston growing up, like, those kinds of [big, fancy] houses, that kind of lifestyle, that kind of reality?
RJ: Yeah, I mean, it’s not terribly far from a lot of the things that I witnessed. Even in Evanston—and I’m really enthusiastic about its diversity—I only knew one black kid who lived on what they would call the “right side of the tracks.” Everyone else more or less lived…. There were quite a few middle-class black kids, which is more or less where my family was. My mother was a professor—when I was young, she was a graduate student—and my father was just starting this little electronics business, so we didn’t have much when I was young, but yes, definitely because of my experience there, I had exposure to some wealthier folks.
SB: It’s like an affluent bubble.
SB: I think that’s what’s described in the—
RJ: This affluent bubble, but with this real ambition to expose their children to other folks. [Laughs]
SB: Yeah. [Laughs]
SB: I love that in the movie there’s this scene where Mary Dalton—the character who is the daughter of the family he’s sort of chaperoning around—tells him something that is, like, very “monolithic black experience,” and his response is, “Yeah, well, I’ll be sure to mention that at our next ’black’ meeting.”
RJ: [Laughs] Well, you have to break that down. I wanted him to have moments of charm. Not [to] be completely bowled over by the experience. I mean, he’s a dynamic person in his own right. He’s quite capable. I think he’s like a—
SB: He’s a punk who is surprisingly put-together when you kind of get down to it.
RJ: Yeah, in some ways he’s put-together. I mean, he shows some commitment to this job. He understands a certain sense of responsibility; he sees the challenges that Mary and her boyfriend, Jan, have [in] engaging with him, because of their lack of experience in more diverse atmospheres. So, he, really, more than anyone else in the story, understands his location, right? Everyone else is kind of like floating around him while he is quite aware of the circumstances, and we feel a comfort level with that until we get to a stage where even he can’t diagnose the circumstances. It becomes overwhelming, or beyond even either his or Mary’s ability because the institutional component—the larger challenges of the American condition—overwhelm the relationships.
SB: I thought what was particularly interesting is that, on the surface, it might be a “black movie,” but it’s actually exploring whiteness just as much, and you get the sort of tensions that come between that conversation, even in, kind of, lighthearted or silly moments, like where Mary asks him where he summers, and he’s like, “I summer where I winter.” It’s like…. [Laughs]
RJ: And he responds to that with humor. [Laughs]
RJ: I mean, he sees her limitations. He’s not really frustrated by the failure of her question or the naiveté of her question. He almost expects it, and he kind of throws it back with some gumption. He’s kind of like, “I summer where I winter.” That’s a ridiculous question, more or less.
RJ: And I think that she’s really quite an interesting character because her response is that she didn’t want to assume. That she knows, more or less, that it’s unlikely that he would have a place where he goes for the summer, but she doesn’t want to treat him differently or ask him questions that would be different than she would ask someone else, and in that way I think it makes her really thoughtful. As challenging as that question is, and as absurd as it is, and [though] it can almost feel condescending, I don’t think that that was her intention, and that’s where you get into some of the explorations of whiteness that, I think, add some real color to how these characters function.
SB: Right, and then, of course, there’s class underlying all of this, too. The idea of blindness is something that’s explored in a lot of your work, and particularly in this film. There’s even a line where Bigger says, “Maybe everyone is blind. Even me.” Could you talk about blindness through the lens of this film and how you unpacked that idea?
RJ: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting because I don’t think of blindness with its opposition being “wokeness,” just to give some clarity to that. I’m not exactly sure how we start to define what wokeness is in the way that it’s been employed over the last few years, especially with its relationship to activism. I don’t find it to be problematic, but I also don’t necessarily see my relationship to it, specifically, or who has access or agency to that wokeness. But blindness is something that I think is really complicated, because it’s really about how you become aware—awareness and cognizance, I think, are really thoughtful things to engage with. How you become aware of things, and at what stage, and how the staging of that awareness begins to affect your relationship to it. And I always give the reference that I was raised with a pretty healthy knowledge, or familiarity, with some radical thinkers, right? I was introduced to the work of Amiri Baraka at a very early age, the work of Malcolm X at a very early age, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, and a lot of black radical intellectuals and thinkers.
I think some people come to that kind of material later in life, and it may have a different effect on them, right? Since it was more or less conjured for me at such an early stage, that was normalcy; that was a common space. It was something I kind of understood and was almost intrinsic to my early education. When you come to some things later and you’re exposed to a certain kind of radical sensibility, then you may have a more radical response to it. It’s interesting: when you become aware, right? And what the terms of that awareness are, and how that affects your understanding of certain circumstances. I think blindness—or the not-knowing of something for a period of time—can both be a reward and it could be something that you can use quite effectively, or it can be something that’s suggestive of something you just haven’t seen yet. So I think blindness is not singular in my employment of it. It’s really all still kind of unfolding for this concept of the blind.
SB: I want to go back to your upbringing. You mentioned your academic mother, who has a Ph.D. and teaches, and your father who ran his own electronics business—it was like ham radio, CB I think?
SB: Yeah. What was it like growing up in Evanston? I understand your father also moved to another neighborhood.
RJ: Yeah. We lived between Evanston and then [the] Wicker Park neighborhood when I was growing up. Wicker Park was, prior to its more recent gentrification, a mostly black and Latino neighborhood at the time. So there was a lot of similarity between the two neighborhoods, as far as their makeup was concerned, but dissimilarity as far as some of the opportunities that the different groups had in the neighborhoods.
I had a good childhood, honestly. I mean, more or less… I had friends; I think I was mostly well thought of amongst my groups. I fought and struggled—I was a little bit of an outsider at times. I almost dropped out of high school at one point because I got really into graffiti, and then drugs, and then I kind of righted the ship, more or less, later in my high school years. I still have a lot of friends and folks that I’m, like, in that relationship with. It’s an interesting example, the diversity of my friend group. Everyone has these text groups now, right? Like, what do they call those things? Texts, like…. I don’t know, when there’s like ten people on a—
SB: I don’t know, the chain? I don’t know. [Laughs]
RJ: Yeah, a text chain or something like that. In the group that I’m part of from my childhood, of the kids who I grew up with from preschool until today, there’s like four black guys, two Asian guys, two Jewish guys, a white English guy…. Yeah, I mean, it’s just a mixed bag of guys, and that’s, kind of, how I grew up—and that’s, in a lot of ways, how I saw the world. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t exposed to racism, xenophobia, homophobia…. I mean, anybody who grew up in the seventies and eighties has heard shit today.
SB: Yeah, still.
RJ: …yeah, has quite a bit of familiarity with those things, but it does, in some ways, color how I think about the world that we live in and the potential for the people who are in it.
SB: The diversity of perspective.
RJ: I mean, it’s an interesting thing, what you’re talking about—the whiteness of it all, right? In particular the characters in my film. I really wanted to make this film without producing deeply racist white characters, because I feel like when you produce a really dark and problematic white character, most of the white audience—and rightfully so—doesn’t necessarily see themselves in that character, right? So, from that point, they’re able to produce a kind of scenario where they are not responsible for the racism that affects the black characters, because the real perpetrator is this really racist white character. You see that pretty consistently in films that have black protagonists: they usually face the obstacle of a really, really racist person, right? And then there’s some good white people who kind of help, and then there’s this really terrible, really racist white person who is the real problem, and if we could just get rid of that person, then the world is going to be great, and that’s just really probably not the reality of how racism functions in this country.
So in Native Son and other things that I think about, I often consider not producing evil white characters, yet still something horrible happens, and then the question really becomes, Well, if there aren’t any devils in this pot, what were the things that made racism appear, right? And then you start realizing that quite a bit of it is institutional—quite a bit of it is baked-in and not necessarily evoked by individuals. That we are all faced with the obstacles of it because of its, just, omnipresence.
RJ: I thought it was really entertaining. I thought it was really funny in a lot of ways. I thought it was really, kind of, educational in a lot of ways. I mean, look, there are aspects of it that are quite low-hanging fruit—that were jokes for all of us to kind of weed out those who were like a little less aware, and be able to kind of play a little bit of an insider game in that respect, but I’d never seen anything like it. [Laughs]
RJ: So I was totally impressed that he was able to make it. I think comedians and folks who are on that side of the arts oftentimes, like [Dave] Chappelle, and, in the past, of course people like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy were the first ones, and Chris Rock, to be able to translate some of society’s ills into ways for us to digest them.
SB: You mentioning Eddie Murphy makes me think about that SNL skit where he dressed up as a white man.
RJ: As a white guy, yeah.
SB: And it’s one of the best SNL skits of all time.
RJ: It’s the best.
SB: Yeah. [Laughs]
RJ: [Laughs] And then when he gets on the bus as a white guy and then the last black guy gets off and they start serving champagne and giving away money. It’s just amazing because it—
SB: He changes his voice, he changes how he walks.
RJ: Yeah, he starts to perform whiteness.
RJ: Which is interesting. The characteristics of the performance are really quite interesting because it’s not like he just paints his face white, he changes, like you said, his walk, right? And he changes his voice, so it’s like the performance of whiteness is like, what is and how do we identify whiteness is obviously more than just a one-point position. It’s these multiple positions, and looking at those stereotypes and how they function was really funny in that particular skit.
SB: I want to go back to your parents because I think it’s so interesting, in the context of your work, that you explore history so much—which clearly has been your mom’s path—and you’ve also kind of played around with a lot of things, the electronics of your home, of growing up under your father.
RJ: Yeah, my father was a tinkerer, and I think that that’s a thing that he and I share. It’s funny, the CB radio culture of the late seventies and early eighties was one [that was] really just right there at that kind of proto-internet space, right? That space right before we were all able to communicate using machines and participate in that kind of anonymity…. But I grew up with that kind of anonymity in some respects. We would get on the CB radio and my father would really enthusiastically kind of call out into the world, and he had this alternators and these systems that allowed his broadcast channel to reach far-out places. We would talk to people from California, and everyone had a handle, names that they’d call themselves, I mean, it was like—
SB: It was like instant messenger before instant messenger.
RJ: Yeah. It was like you were, yeah, like instant messaging. It was like you were a superhero. My dad called himself Top Gun, and so I mean, look, it was anonymously reaching out into the world and saying, “I am here. Do you hear me?” And there’s something really ambitious about it, but there’s also something about curiosity in it, the curiosity of tinkering, the curiosity of communication and communicating with others who you don’t know, who you don’t have any expectation for and you’re just doing it just for the purpose.
SB: There’s no judgment.
RJ: No, there’s no judgment. I mean, listen, we’ve all been on the internet so we know that there’s judgment. [Laughs] We know that there’s, I mean, they’ve got whole words now for the way people communicate with one another on the internet—the trolling, and the bullying that we see out there—and I’m sure some of that belonged to that CB radio space as well, but it didn’t feel like it, not as much when I was young. It just felt like exploration. It felt like you were a radio astronaut in some respect.
SB: It’s interesting to go back to where we began, the subject of time and how communication through time has really shifted.
RJ: Yeah, it has, it’s changing every day, more and more. How we author ourselves online is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, and my footprint online, and what I’m willing to say and what I’m keeping to myself in order to spare myself the….
RJ: Yeah. Yeah, honestly.
SB: You were a student of photography; you had an early interest in film as well. I think what’s interesting is, oftentimes, your breakout is credited to the Studio Museum show in 2001 that Thelma Golden curated, but I actually found it really interesting that you got your work into the Martha Schneider Gallery, in Chicago. “New Artists, Old Processes” was the name of the show that was going to be opening, and you basically walk into this gallery, age 19. “Check out my work.” [Laughs]
SB: Which definitely takes some guts.
RJ: Or naiveté. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had made a body of work that I thought was good and I felt like it was strong. I walked into a gallery that was [planning that exhibition], and I was working in Van Dyke brown, iron-based 19th-century photographic printing, and I said, “Oh, I have these great things and they’re ready for your show,” more or less, and she’s like, “What are you doing here? No one walks in with their portfolio. This is….”
SB: Or if they do, they’re turned around. “Get out.”
RJ: Yeah, they’re immediately turned around. So she more or less turned me around, and she’s like, “You should probably leave.” [Laughs]
RJ: And I said, “Oh well, I just think you should probably really look at these because I think that there’s other galleries that are going to be interested and if you don’t look at them then I’ll go to the other galleries.” Like it was a threat of some sort, and she I think found that amusing and—
SB: This 19-year-old kid. [Laughs]
SB: Like, “I’ll go to another gallery.”
RJ: Yeah, and she was like, “Okay, I’ll look at them.” And she gave me a show. She gave me a show like a month later or something. We framed the prints and she gave me a show, and we sold a few things to the Art Institute of Chicago—I think it was $400 they [paid for] a print. And sold it to some other really interesting collectors in Chicago, and it was a start for me, but yeah, having said that, I think Thelma’s inclusion of me in the Studio Museum show “Freestyle” definitely…
SB: Bumped it up.
RJ: Yeah. There’s no question about it. I give her a lot of credit. I think she is a genius.
SB: Yeah. I just found it so interesting that you had the kind of guts to go in and do that, and that that was your real entrée into the art world.
RJ: Yeah, I was showing and selling small works. From age 19. I’m like a child actor. I’ve been doing this for a long time.
SB: [Laughs] So then you get your B.A. from Columbia College, in Chicago, in 2000. From 2003 to 2005, you studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. It was there that you studied under Gregg Bordowitz, who I understand is a professor of film and new media and an activist, too. It seemed like he had a pretty strong impact on you. Could you talk about that?
RJ: He did. I’d gone into grad school with some interest [in] and familiarity with critical theory, but it was expanded on quite a bit when I was at the school, and a person who was really influential in that expansion was Gregg Bordowitz, kind of introducing me to semiotics and new ideas, books like Empire [of Signs], writers like [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari, better understanding people like Derrida, and understanding and thinking about structuralism and deconstruction. I also studied with a woman named Barbara DeGenevieve there—who passed a few years ago—who was a huge influence on me, and a woman named Claire Pentecost, who was there at the time, I think she’s still there actually, was really influential as well, and some other folks in the department.
So there were some really smart people there, some really thoughtful people there, but Gregg, in particular, I think, the way that he saw the world, some of his writing… There was a book of his that I had gotten while I was a student called The AIDS Crisis Is Ridiculous. I remember reading that and just thinking about the world differently than I had thought about it prior, kind of getting a sense that things weren’t necessarily as solid as I thought that they were, and that there was room and cracks in between the things that I thought were resolved—that I realized were considerably more porous—and it allowed me to think more expansively about my practice, both from a critical position and from an aesthetic one.
SB: You started in photography. That evolved. Could you talk about that evolution a little bit, early on in your career?
RJ: Yeah, photography was an interesting medium to start [with] because when I came into undergrad, in the nineties, photography, new media, performance, film—that’s where the smart kids were, that’s where the kids who were really interested in moving the conversation forward, that’s where they were studying. Now that I look back at it, I think we were kind of coming off of the eighties boom and what had happened with painting, and of course all the enthusiasm for painting hadn’t waned—and it never will—but there was a real kind of dulling, I think, of the market of it all, and so I didn’t come into art thinking that there was any sort of career to be had, necessarily. I thought teaching was probably the career to have in it, and critical investigations, using technology—and when I say technology I mean cameras, and other than that I’m pretty much a Luddite—but using new tools was really the place to be. It was one of the more interesting places, which was always challenging for me because I also always had a real enthusiasm for materials and for how to spread materials out and thinking a lot about mark-making, and abstraction, and images.
So there was always a dichotomy in me, this ambition to be in the world of new media on this cutting-edge wave of thinkers and creators, but at the same time quietly pining over Clyfford Still paintings, and quietly perusing the Art Institute’s ab[stract]-ex[pressionism] section, and thinking a lot about Franz Kline and some other folks, [Jean] Dubuffet…. So I always had that two-ness about me, and I think it’s just how I am naturally as an artist, to be excited about multiple ways of participating.
SB: Right. You mentioned materials, and I mean, I can’t even list all the materials you have used, but it’s everything from bathroom tiles and broken mirrors, wallpaper to oak flooring, radios, DVD players, TVs. I think probably most famously black soap and shea butter, which I definitely want to talk to you about. How did shea butter come into your head as a material that you would turn into art or use for your art-making?
RJ: [Laughs] Shea butter came to me really honestly. There was something that I had started to see in the work of, in particular, artists of color like David Hammons in the eighties and nineties, and some of that was kind of taking cultural materials and then allowing them to perform in very contemporary ways. Allowing them to become kind of abstractions or tools that could be employed in a setting, or a stage, or a circumstance that allowed for abstraction to be its root while still having a real strong signifier relationship to its cultural underpinning and its root, and you saw that in David’s work with hair and with some other materials, and there were some other folks, I think, at the same time who were exploring these same concepts and ideas.
Shea butter was something that I had used for most of my life. I mean, I’d been exposed to it at an early age. My mother was an African history professor, like we’ve talked about, and so it was just around. Then a lot of times in the streets of Chicago, [or] New York and a lot of other urban spaces, you see folks selling shea butter and black soap on the street.
SB: Yeah, like 125th Street.
RJ: Yeah, it’s all over the place. So that idea of Afrocentrism, that idea of that kind of signifier…. I was actually sitting in my bathroom—it was, like, my first year of grad school and at the time The Tavis Smiley Show was on in National Public Radio. I used to listen to it every day, I think it was at 2 p.m., and Tavis was an interesting interviewer. I think his show was an hour, hour and a half, around things that were affecting communities of color, and it was the first time I had ever kind of gotten really into a program like that on National Public Radio, other than Terry Gross—I love her interviews. I was putting on shea butter in my bathroom one day listening to Tavis, and a friend called me and he said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I’m listening to Tavis Smiley and I’m putting on shea butter.” And he started to laugh, he thought it was really funny, and I was like, “What?” I was like, “That does sound like my world.” That sums it up, in a way. That’s honestly where I am. That’s who I am, and it’s incredibly contemporary and it’s incredibly complicated, and I thought it was this really honest moment. So from there I started including shea butter at different points in the work.
SB: You even made a video that sort of replicated that experience of listening to Tavis.
SB: In the bathtub.
RJ: It’s called “Me, Tavis Smiley, and Shea Butter.” From there I just started kind of using it, and I thought about other people who would use materials that weren’t dissimilar, whether it be Joseph Beuys or, like, the ownership of a material, your relationship to it and the signifier that it was. How the characteristics that it held were inherent to it, and [how] the stories that it has are kind of inherent to it, and then your contribution and your relating it to things that aren’t necessarily obvious.
My studio manager Alex studied and got a master’s degree recently in psychology, and she was telling me about creativity and how some people define [it]. She said that sometimes creativity can be defined by people who have a willingness to put things together that are unexpected to be combined, that are not pragmatic in their combination, and as a result, something interesting is born of these, kind of, connections, or “collisions,” I guess I would think they call them, and putting shea butter together with the things that I was putting it next to felt like these very contemporary collisions. I guess in that way it felt deeply creative.
SB: Yeah, in that sense, I want to mention “Antoine’s Organ,” which was a piece you did in a 2016 exhibition that included that video as part of it. That really is, like, an assemblage. It was this plant-based installation, incredibly complex—I don’t even want to try to describe it because I’ll probably butcher it. [Laughs] But there was a live pianist, Antoine Baldwin, who is sort of embedded inside the thing. Talk a little bit about “Antoine’s Organ,” what it meant or represented for you, the artist.
RJ: “Antoine’s Organ” was kind of a brain for me. When I started to realize that I had built more or less a concert of things that I was interested in, and when you kind of rattle off a list of the materials that I’ve worked with, I start thinking and I continue in my work more recently to think about how I’ve worked with all these things and my ambition to put them all together, and my first instinct is to think about that in collage form, that it’s collage, right? I think collage is a complicated thing to consider. A friend of mine, a guy named Robert Longo, looked at a work of mine once and he said, “No, these are collisions.” And I’ve kind of taken that from him, and I think that he’s right.
SB: As opposed to collage.
RJ: Yeah, that it’s just putting all these things together. I don’t believe in melting pots necessarily. I just think that there’s a bunch of shit in there and you just have to kind of deal with it. It’s like eating chili: Sometimes you get a bite with all kidney beans, red beans, or whatever, and sometimes you get a different bite, right? You might get a pepper in there.
SB: Sounds like America.
RJ: Yeah, so I took a lot of interesting influences in putting together “Antoine’s Organ.” One was thinking about minimalism and thinking about structure, and my relationship to the grid.
SB: Sol LeWitt kind of comes to mind.
RJ: Yeah, someone like LeWitt, who I thought about a lot, and then thinking about occupation, right? When you think about a lot of the minimalists, you think about the simplicity and their relationship to industry and structure, and the formal qualities. And I thought, “Well, in my hands it doesn’t do that.” I want to occupy the dean’s office or something. I want to sit in it, and there were quite a few references for me to getting there.
In particular, I used to go to the Museum of Contemporary Art when I was young. I’d go with a few buddies of mine. It was early in college, and so I’d go with some of my random graffiti buddies, and it would be, like, a couple black kids going into the Museum of Contemporary Art. I remember they had this great Carl Andrew sculpture—we had learned early on that you could stand on a Carl Andre sculpture. We wanted to use it almost as a performance. It was like a platform, right? Oftentimes, folks who came to the museum didn’t know that you could stand on the Carl Andre sculpture. So I would walk into the middle of the sculpture and freak out people who were walking through the museum. They’d see me, [and be] like, “What is he doing on the sculpture?” And I felt really, I don’t know, like, empowered, that I, one, had the knowledge that I could activate it, and two, that my young black body was there in the center of this kind of canonical historical work, and that I was present in it, and that I could engage it, and activate it, and turn it on.
A work like “Antoine’s Organ” shares similar characteristics. It’s about turning those spaces on. [One way] I think about it is [as] the reclamation of nature to man-made objects. It’s a big steel, gritty, cube, there’s plants all over it that are kind of growing in it, and above it, and through it, and then at its heart is a young musician, Antoine Baldwin, who performs quite beautifully and brilliantly whatever the hell he wants to play on the piano, and he’s partially visible but partially kind of covered. There are references from my wife [Sheree Hovsepian] and her family. My wife is Iranian, so I had started, years before, using a lot of Persian rugs, and so it’s just like … it’s like everything. It’s Persian rugs, shea butter, black soap, books from A to B (A to Z, I guess, would be a better way to say it). It all just kind of comes together and ideally helps maybe confuse you about what the hell my intentions are.
SB: One of the things about so much of your work that’s similar to the Andre piece you’ve been describing is this idea of [how] it’s meant to activate the viewer and position [them] within it. As the artist, in doing that act and making the people a part of it, what is your hope? What do you….
RJ: It’s interesting. There are so many different ways to make people a part of things, and I think it’s always intended to be inclusive and, in some ways, to embrace the audience. More recently I’ve been thinking about the plants. People always ask me, “Oh, what do the plants do?” And one of the things I’ve noticed that they do—and this is really honest, it’s a really honest thinking around what I’ve seen them do with audiences—is that people come in and they look at the plant and they ask who is going to take care of them. It’s like it’s inevitable; it’s like the first thing that they are concerned about.
SB: Like, if one were to collect the work, who is going to—
RJ: No, they just wonder [about them] in the space.
SB: Oh, like who is watering [them]?
RJ: Who is watering these? Is somebody doing it? It’s almost like a challenge. It’s almost like, are you here to kill this plant? The thing that that starts to activate is a sense of empathy. People come in and they’re really empathetic towards the plants. They feel like, “Oh, my God, I need to check on these things. I’m here to make sure that these plants are okay, more or less.” Once empathy kind of enters the room, I think it really breaks things down, and it makes you more open, and I feel like you pay attention and you think about things. You don’t come in with a clenched fist, ready to be challenged by the contemporariness of it all.
SB: Plants do kind of calm you.
RJ: They do. There’s something really quite poetic about them, but they’re really calming, and look, I use a lot of materials that people are familiar with, and one of the things that kind of keeps me in that place of using materials that people are familiar with is that people come in and they know what they’re looking at. They’ll look at tile and they’re like, “I know what this is.” Right? So then that familiarity tends to like, I don’t know, like, soften the read of the work. It just softens how people approach it. Once you already know that you know something, it becomes less intimidating, I think, and that’s just interesting for me.
Look, it’s not intended to be pandering, because I don’t think that the work panders, but I have a real belief in the sophistication of an audience—both trained in art and not—to read, and deal with, and participate with work. It’s one of the reasons that I’m really interested in pushing arts literacy and visual literacy in earlier education, to say, “Give these kids agency. All they need to know is that they know enough to look at an artwork.” And if you tell people that, then they have a different comfort level.
My son is 8, and I always push him. “You know enough to interpret any artwork. You know all the things you currently need to know to start to understand an artwork.” Every artwork isn’t to be addressed with the question, ”What does it mean?” Because we shouldn’t necessarily burden ourselves or anyone else with that responsibility. We can read—pictures talk, sculptures talk—and all we have to do is start to read them, and we all have the language to do that.
SB: Yeah, and feel something.
SB: Yeah. On the subject of plants, how did those come into the picture for you, for your work?
RJ: It started early, with the plants. It just came. Of course there are some influences in artists that I saw that were using them, but I think I didn’t really pay much attention to those artists until after I had started to use the material. I’ve always been interested in organic things. I’m interested in things that grow and change.
Even thinking about photography: early on I was using a 19th-century process, which, I guess, cycles us back into this kind of idea of time. I was a young guy working in contemporary times using a process from a different time, but even then, at those early stages, I started to bring in plants and other things that change. Photography, for good or bad, oftentimes has an evolution, as an object, right? It can only be out for so long, it’s UV-sensitive, and thinking about my relationship to light and the relationship that artists have to light, and that materials have to light, the amount of time things can be exposed…. Light is, like, the enemy of every artwork, right? More or less. Other than like mine. [Laughs]
RJ: So there was this idea—especially having trained in photography early—it was like, “Keep it out of the light. Keep it out of the light.” And then I’m like, “How do I get into the light?”
RJ: How do I push into that space, right? And plants were the one thing that the light affected for good.
RJ: So I was like, “Okay, well I’ll create this dichotomy then.” I’ll let the plants, which need light, have to live in spaces with objects that light is the enemy of, and then I’ll try to figure out how to negotiate those circumstances.
SB: It sounds so much like a human experience, too—we all need light.
RJ: We do, we do. I’m taking vitamin D supplements. I need more light. Living in New York can be tough.
SB: [Laughs] I want to finish on the subject of film and video. There are several works you’ve done in addition to Native Son that I think are worth bringing up and exploring how and why you’ve treaded more into the video-making. “The New Black Yoga,” from 2011, is one that I found particularly moving. It’s basically depicting this scenario with these five African American men and they’re in the desert, and it’s this choreographed experience. Could you talk about the thinking behind that and why that film has…. I’m still wondering, like, “How did I respond to that?” It’s a really powerful film.
RJ: It uses a lot of tools that, again, speak to how we understand time. I originally made in—God, 2008 or 2007—a film called “Black Yoga.” I was living in Berlin at the time, and was dealing with a lot of anxieties—my first time living abroad for any sort of significant time…. Actually, I’m not sure that’s true. But either way, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety, and I was thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go to yoga class. I’m going to, this.” Because I remember I had a doctor who told me, “You should start doing yoga. It’s great for breathing, it’s going to really calm you down.” I’ve always dealt with a lot of anxiety, and then I remember realizing that I wasn’t going to necessarily be able to do that because all the yoga classes were in German and I knew that, whatever, I’d ask some people, “Can I take a yoga class?” And they’re like, “You can’t, it’s in German.” And I was like, “Can’t I just copy what the people do?” And apparently that was not a reasonable solution for some reason. [Laughs] So I found a young guy—he was a dancer—and I said, “Look, I want to make this film about yoga.” And he was like, “Okay.” And I was like, “I don’t know how to do yoga.” And he didn’t, either.
So I started just to choreograph something that I made up, and it was just called “Black Yoga.” It was just, like, me and this guy figuring out how to invent this kind of fictional yoga, and I shot it with an eight-millimeter camera, and it was this really weird movie but it was really cathartic. It was like, I just invented this new yoga, and we were going to just practice this thing. I remember showing it, and people thinking, and saying, “Oh, my parents used to do Black Yoga.” Just making up shit, and I was like, “What are you talking about? I invented this, this is like….” But the film looked like it was shot—
SB: [Laughs] So believable.
RJ: Yeah. It was like shot in 1971. The guy had an afro. Every bit of it felt like it was found footage. Everyone just assumed that it was just like I’d found this archive of “Black Yoga” footage. From there I was like, “I want to expand on it. I really want to expand on it and I want to put more people in it. I want to make it like a group effort.” So I found these other five young dancers and we shot this film. Actually we shot it on Long Island. It was a similar process. Just kind of like, we went out and I started to just give them directions for movements that I thought were interesting, and it’s really a mix of tai chi, or tai chi–ish things, martial arts, yoga, and modern contemporary dance, and ballet. Just all the ways we can consider moving. That’s more or less kind of how that film was born. It’s all really led to a film that actually I’m showing in New York at Hauser & Wirth, November 12th through [January 25], called “The Hikers,” which is a graduation, in a lot of ways, of some of those earlier dance groups.
SB: I was going to bring that up, because it’s currently on view at Aspen Art Museum and Museo Tamayo [in Mexico City]. [Editor’s note: The Aspen Art Museum’s presentation ended Nov. 3; Museo Tamayo’s runs through Nov. 10.]
SB: Yeah. And I understand it came from an experience of you going on a hike?
RJ: It did, it came from me spending some time in Aspen and going on hikes, and—for those who are less familiar with Aspen—it is quite pale. There aren’t a ton of folks of color there, which is what it is. It’s just what the place is. I remember, as I walk through the streets of Aspen, whenever I see a person of color, I just almost like wave at them, and it’s something that’s not even conscious on my part. I just kind of smile at them, I guess thinking if the race war were to start, at least they would be there or something—not that I believe that there’s any race war starting, but just feeling a little bit of joy in seeing someone who shares characteristics with you, which anyone I think would naturally have.
Then I started thinking about hiking, and walking, and thinking about Thoreau and Walking, thinking about nature, our engagement with nature, our relationships with different kinds of people, and if I were to run into someone on a circumstance like that and, how quickly love can bloom, and platonic love. This quick burst of love when you see someone who looks like you in an unexpected place—how you could quickly fall in love with them, right? And that that love can disintegrate as quickly as it was born, and it can kind of dissolve and break up, but that there’s a beauty in that kind of interaction, in those moments, those kind of shared moments, and born of that was “The Hikers.”
SB: I love your description just now because it got me thinking about your “Fly Away” exhibition, got me thinking about Native Son, this whole idea of escape and the yearning so many of us on Earth have to escape and the reality is that we have these pains and the struggle we have to, sort of, cope with or deal with every day. How do you think about escape?
RJ: I guess if there was something thematic in my work, a lot of times it would come back to that, as a theme. Escape is impossible in some respect.
SB: I mean, the astronauts always come home.
RJ: [Laughs] Yeah, the astronauts always come home; suicide doesn’t seem like a good option. Escape is temporary at best, but I think that most of us have some relationship to the concept of what it is and what it could be. It lives in my work in a lot of different mysterious ways. It’s a funny thing because, from the African American perspective, I always think about the history of escape, whether it’s from the North to the South, [or…] It’s like, “Follow the North Star, you have to get from the South to the North, right?” Or Marcus Garvey saying, “There is a black star line and we’re going to go back to Africa.” All these kind of movements, right? Even thinking about someone like Sun Ra, the avant-garde jazz pianist who didn’t even imagine himself to be from Earth. He started to say that he was literally from Saturn, and that that was his story, right?
So just kind of thinking about that history, and the history that most of us have with how we escape, where we escape, what’s possible, like, where can we go, right? And there’s oftentimes obstacles that you face in any of those scenarios, like, can we go to Spain? It’s like, do we speak Spanish? Could I get citizenship? So it all loops back into the bits of self-exploration and the realization that the human condition has, more or less, put us as prisoners in our own minds, and we just have to figure out how to negotiate with that terrorist.
SB: I think of little Rashid walking on that Carl Andre right now.
RJ: He was an escapist.
SB: Yeah. This is great. Thanks, Rashid. Thanks for coming in today.
RJ: Thanks for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Oct. 22, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.