Rashid Johnson employs an afrofuturist methodology to create an alternative universe out of black cultural detritus so that histories and possibilities of black life in America can be imagined otherwise. In his current solo show, Message to Our Folks, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Johnson projects a concept of blackness that cannot be confined or defined—it is the blackness of the universe, perhaps, which extends beyond the realm of our ability to completely grasp it. At the same time, Johnson creates space for a celebration of this indefinable blackness—albeit a celebration of black histories (not History), of communities (not Community) and of identities (not Identity.)
Rashid Johnson, Death by Black Hole "The Crisis", 2010, Steel, black soap, wax, books, shea butter, plant, space rocks, mirror, gold paint, stained wood, 96 1/2 x 76 1/4 x 30 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago)
The centerpieces of the show are Johnson’s shelf sculptures in a variety of iterations. These come in the form of shrine-like canvases covered in melted black soap (a healing remedy originating from Ghana) or as wall collages made from fragments of mirrors. They include “offerings” of shea butter, and various books and records by black authors and musicians. The audience’s knowledge of these references is put to the test as Johnson usurps the relegation of black intellectual and cultural history to African-American history departments and “black arts” shows. Instead, he gives over the historically euro-centric and whitewashed space of art interpretation to viewers for whom black and African-American histories and cultural references take center stage.
Living plants can be found in multiple works throughout the show. The care that goes into maintaining these plants suggests a desire to reclaim a world where people co-exist with nature and the universe. This theme is echoed in the work, Love in Outer Space (named for a Sun Ra song), where imprints of spray-painted beans form the shape of constellations of stars. The interconnectedness of life is the message—one which echoes certain conceptions of afrofuturism. As Mark Rockeymoore writes: “Afrofuturism is about ... intuitively understanding the harmonics of the Earth and solar system … The rotation and evolution of the galaxy and the oneness of the universe.”
One of the most striking works upon entering the gallery is a wall of portraits and self-portraits collectively titled The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club. Johnson uses these portraits to reimagine different histories for himself and his subjects. In one instance, he recreates an iconic portrait of abolitionist Frederick Douglass with himself as Douglass, a move which suggests a desire to attain the past by embodying it. Other portraits are of homeless men that Johnson befriended while living in Chicago. By removing all markers of their homelessness, Johnson offers these men alternative lives where homelessness does not define them. The outmoded 19th century printing process Johnson uses to document these men would not have been used to document black subjects, nor would it have been available to Johnson as a black photographer in the moment the process was popular. The act of making these photographs is, as such, an act in defiance of history.
The idea that the act of artistic creation is itself a process of self-liberation is shared by Cauleen Smith, whose solo show, A Star is A Seed, upstairs in the MCA Screen gallery, complements and intersects with Johnson's. Smith’s video and installation works begin with a desire to discover how Sun Ra’s personal history in Chicago transformed him from his birth-self Herman Blount into an afrofuturist pioneer. Smith excavates the traces of Sun Ra’s presence—from sounds and images found in the archives of the experimental sound studio to documenting performances of the remaining living members of Sun Ra’s Arkestra—and re-maps the city with landmarks of black creativity.
You enter the black box gallery through an impressive “wall of mirrors” corridor installation. This vortex-like space, with obvious allusions to sci-fi movie portals that allow us to travel to other dimensions, is surprisingly disorienting. In the space itself, Smith has installed two fluffy pink and orange hoppy-balls that visitors can bounce on. These works, it soon becomes clear, are named after, and are perhaps themselves archaeological traces of, the two main recurring protagonists in Smith’s videos called Nicolai and Regina—black skinned “aliens” with bright orange hair. In one video, Play Your Part, a psychiatrist character tries to rationalize her patient’s “hallucinations” of Nicolai and Regina. They may not be extraterrestrials at all, she suggests: “they may just be from the Southside!” This amusing yet poignant moment both recalls Sun Ra’s contention that he was part of an “angel race” visiting earth from Saturn, while more nefariously reminding viewers of Chicago’s intense segregation. These beings hand flyers to the audience through the camera that brings a message from Sun Ra: “We are all instruments. Everyone is supposed to be playing their part.”
As Smith traverses the city searching for Sun Ra, she discovers her own archive of otherworldly sounds and images. The lake, unlike the sea, is silent—it listens. Bertrand Goldberg’s futuristic Hilliard Homes and the spaceship-like form of the bean are obviously extraterrestrial, but you may not have noticed the odd shape of the City’s circular sewer coverings. Smith also discovers something transcendent in the subjects she films. Her camera lingers on the colorful braid clips that dance from the head of a young black girl—an element of the heavenly in the everyday. The formations and costumes of a marching band she hires to perform Space is the Place are suddenly so obviously supernatural. Smith transforms the city into an alien landscape of strange and mystical beings that have the power to expand our minds. These beings will enable us to see the city anew,.
Johnson and Smith speak to each other profoundly, building on existing afrofuturist narratives which mutate when combined with the artists’ own personal histories. They remind us that a star is a seed, a bean is a star and suggest that other histories and other ways of knowing the universe might still be attainable.
(Image at top: Cauleen Smith, Nicolai and Regina Series 01 (film still), 2012, 16mm - digital print, Cinematography: Cauleen Smith and Ian Curry; Courtesy of the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago