Whatever I might think of Atlanta’s High Museum of Art’s for-profit status and high ticket prices and its dumbed-down (numbed-down) blockbusters (curatorial snoozefests of the treasures of the Old World), it has continued to represent African American and folk artists well over the years, and the recent show of Rashid Johnson, Message to our Folks, was no exception. Message to Our Folks, whose title comes from 70’s-era, African-American literature, consists of photography and mixed-media sculptural installations that combines a personal interpretation of a retro-funk aesthetic with contemporarily styled artistic interventions and references to African American culture.
By looking backward at these earlier conceptions of blackness, Johnson positions himself clearer in a later, distanced position that takes blackness as its subject matter. Johnson’s work is deliberately generational, couched in terms of his parent’s blackness versus his own. This distinctly personal voice thus refrains from defining, even while thematizing, blackness and factors in the artist’s own subjectivity.
I was reading the exhibition catalog, and in it, contemporary African American artist Glenn Ligon characterized this work by Johnson as “post-black.” This term, which caught currency after Thelma Golden of the Whitney Museum used it in a 2001 show, describes an African American artist does not categorize or define his or her work as being about race, even though it is very much still a theme. The way Ligon wrote about it struck me off, since he puts his own work in the “black” category, and it puts Johnson in the “post-black” category. It’s the generational element repeated: implying the Johnson is more free in how he can deal with such topics.
Yet I think its hard to get away from the fact that, unlike, say post-modernism which came after Modernism, post-black implies a condition after being black, but what would that be exactly? What then does that original term “black” mean? I saw a couple shows in Chelsea this Fall that also speak to the notions of “black” and “post-black,” and I want to write about those next.