Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks

September 20, 2013 - January 6, 2014
Ebsworth Gallery

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks is the first major solo museum exhibition to survey the career of this Chicago-born, New York-based artist. Using photography, painting, sculpture, and video, Johnson challenges entrenched ways of thinking about the black experience in America and, by extension, seminal issues of race in today’s society. Johnson incorporates commonplace objects from his childhood into his work in a process he describes as “hijacking the domestic.” He transforms these materials—plants, books, record albums, photographs, shea butter, soap—into conceptually loaded and visually compelling art that investigates the construction of identity. Steeped in individual experience while invoking shared cultural references, Johnson's work also calls upon black American creative and intellectual figures, extending the legacy of these cultural icons.

While Johnson’s works are grounded in dialogue with modern and contemporary art history, specifically abstraction and appropriation, they also give voice to an Afro-futurist narrative in which the artist commingles references to experimental musician Sun Ra, jazz great Miles Davis, and rap group Public Enemy; organizations such as Sigma Pi Phi (the first African American Greek-letter organization); and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois and others. In addition to exploring his own personal and cultural history, the artist humorously shares his metaphysical journey with us as he contemplates the creation of the universe, art, and the self.

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks is titled after a 1969 album by the avant-garde collective Art Ensemble of Chicago. The exhibition is organized by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where it debuted in 2012. The St. Louis exhibition is curated by Meredith Malone, associate curator at the Kemper Art Museum.

About the artist

Rashid Johnson was born in Chicago in 1977. He earned his BFA from Columbia College Chicago in 2000 and attended the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. Johnson moved to New York in 2005 and currently lives and works in Brooklyn. The artist has exhibited widely in both the US and Europe; recent solo exhibitions include Shelter, South London Gallery, London (2012); Smoke and Mirrors, Sculpture Center, New York (2009); Sharpening My Oyster Knife, Kunstmuseum Magdeburg, Magdeburg, Germany (2008); The Production of Escapism, Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, Indianapolis (2005). Major group exhibitions include Shanghai Biennale-REACTIVATION, Shanghai, China (2012); 54th Venice Biennale, ILLUMInations, Venice, Italy (2011); For the Love of the Game: Race and Sports, The Amistad Center for Art & Culture at the Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford (2007); and Freestyle, Studio Museum, New York (2001).

Exhibition catalog

A fully illustrated catalog, the most comprehensive documentation of Johnson’s work to date, accompanies the exhibition. Catalog essayists include Julie Rodrigues Widholm, exhibition curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, novelist and critic Touré, and art historian Ian Bourland. The book also features an excerpt from Paul Beatty's trenchant and comic coming-of-age novel The White Boy Shuffle (1996).

Exhibition support

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Lead support for this exhibition is generously provided by The Joyce Foundation and Margot and George Greig.
Additional generous support is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; Mary Ittelson; The Estate of Edward Anixter; The Efroymson Family Fund; Jack and Sandra Guthman; David Kordansky Gallery; Hauser & Wirth; Massimo De Carlo/Carlson Gallery, Milan-London; Liz and Eric Lefkofsky; Paul Gray and Dedrea Armour Gray; Marilyn and Larry Fields; Susan D. Bowey; Paul and Linda Gotskind; Lenore and Adam Sender; David Shuman; Dr. Daniel S. Berger; Galerie Guido W. Baudach; Dr. Anita Blanchard and Martin H. Nesbitt; Evan Boris and Monique Meloche; and Lynn and Allen Turner.

Support for the exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis is provided by James M. Kemper, Jr.; the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation; the William T. Kemper Foundation; the Hortense Lewin Art Fund; the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission; Washington University’s Office of the Provost; and members of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.


Educator resources

The Museum's Education department connects special exhibitions with students of all levels through specialized tours, curriculum plans, hands-on activities, and more. Download the Educator's Guide for the exhibition for more details.

Media links

- Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks press release (July 11, 2013)
- Exhibition preview by Kenya Vaughn of The St. Louis American (September 19, 2013)
- St. Louis Public Radio's Steve Potter interviews artist Rashid Johnson and associate curator Meredith Malone for Cityscape (September 20, 2013)
- Exhibition review by Dickson Beall of the West End Word (September 25, 2013)

American Arts Experience-St. Louis

Celebrating the work and inspiration of American artists, the American Arts Experience-St. Louis is a 17-day festival of American theatre, dance, music, and art beginning October 4, 2013. The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum is pleased to participate in this citywide event with our fall exhibitions Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks and American Places: Painting the Landscape in the Nineteenth Century.

Image credits

Rashid Johnson, Jonathan with Eyes Closed, 1999. Toned silver gelatin print, 21 1/2 x 27 1/2". Collection of Paul and Dedrea Gray, Chicago. Photo by Michael Tropea, Chicago.

Rashid Johnson, Triple Consciousness, 2009. Black soap, wax, vinyl in album cover, shea butter, plant, and brass, 48 3/4 x 97 1/2 x 6 1/4". Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger, Chicago. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Rashid Johnson, The Shuttle, 2011. Mirrored tile, black soap, wax, books, shea butter, plant, and CB radio, 100 1/2 x 125 1/2 x 11 3/4". Rubell Family Collection, Miami. Photo by Adam Reich, courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait with My Hair Parted Like Frederick Douglass, 2003. Lambda print, 56 x 43 3/4". Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of the Susan and Lewis Manilow Collection of Chicago Artists, 2006.26. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Rashid Johnson, The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett), 2008. Lambda print, 48 1/2 x 73". Collection of Elliot and Kimberly Perry, Memphis. Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Rashid Johnson, Death by Black Hole “The Crisis”, 2010. Steel, black soap, wax, books, shea butter, plant, space rock, mirror, spray enamel, and stained wood, 96 1/2 x 76 1/4 x 30". Courtesy of Gagosian Gallery. Image courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles.

Rashid Johnson, George, 1998–99. Van Dyke Brown print, 29 1/2 x 23". Collection of Abigail and Matthew Bangser, Los Angeles. Photo by Joshua White.

Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson's Grave, 2006. Lambda print, 40 1/2 x 49 1/2". Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger, Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rashid Johnson, How Ya Like Me Now, 2010. Persian rug, gold embroidery, and shea butter, 7 x 110 3/4 x 150". Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Guido W. Baudach, Berlin. Photo by Roman März.