In the “post-Obama” world of 2012, is this a little much? He has a funny and insightful answer.
He sees himself as part of “the third wave of Afro-Centrism,” a product of the hyper-race-conscious Chicago of the 1970s and parents who “wore dashikis” and were involved in creating a black mythology centered around black nationalism. As the Reagan era unfolded, they put away their robes and donned suits, leaving the young Johnson “in a void.” It was quickly filled, however, by the new, powerful forces of black musicians, athletes and pop icons who would shape his voice and art.
Some have labeled his work “conceptual post-black art,” which is a fairly useless term, but his art does express a current thread in American culture while remaining true to important roots.
One searing piece from 2001 is a Van Dyke Brown print, a 19th century photographic process Johnson often employs that makes pictures look aged. The image of the bottoms of feet, arranged in two rows, is called Untitled, Manumission Papers, for the documents by which slaves were freed. And it clearly references the system by which enslaved blacks were assessed, branded, documented and dehumanized, a well-known vein in African-American history.
As you walk across Johnson’s branded wooden floor, you come upon another stunning piece, Cosmic Slop, an all-black painting made in part from black soap of West African origins, that shares its title with a groundbreaking 1973 Funkadelic album. The title of the exhibit itself, Message to Our Folks, is appropriated from a 1960s jazz album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but is also an obvious reference to the classic 1903 Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Du Bois, whose presence is felt throughout the show.
With so many layers to follow and decipher, this is one of the smartest shows MAM has had in a while, and one of the best of the year. But not everything works.
The altars with found objects seem too obvious, for example. Maybe we here on the Caribbean periphery are so used to these ritual shelves that they remain a little flat. Some include a mirror as canvas, dripping with black wax and punctured and splintered with imagery evoking bullet holes. The photography and painting are so complex, beautiful and powerful that these sculptures are overshadowed.
But then Johnson explains the found objects and fractured mirrors in his confident and convincing style: “I want materials that are understandable. I don’t want people to have to think they have to put on a beret to be an artist, to understand art. I don’t want this to be scary stuff, it should be materials we all recognize, so we can’t distance ourselves from it.”
And that process of recognition is why he loves mirrors. “I think it’s funny. You wake up in the morning and look in the mirror,” he says. That’s the last image of yourself, and later in the day you still think you look that way, but others have a different impression.
“There has to be a constant dialogue” he says.