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Rashid Johnson Draws Portraits with Black Soap and Wax

An all-too familiar anxiety plays out in Johnson's 'Anxious Men' at SoHo's Drawing Center.
Courtesy of The Drawing Center. Photo by Jose Andres Ramirez.

Anxious Men by Rashid Johnson at the Drawing Center in SoHo anchors black soap and wax drawings with a 1977 portrait of the artist's father as wallpaper. The tiled image is meant to represent the countless black men who have lost their lives to gun violence.

“This show was a now moment for me—it represents the anxiety that I was feeling personally, having spent a good portion of the summer sitting and watching CNN,” Johnson tells The Creators Project.


Rashid Johnson, Untitled Anxious Men, 2015. White ceramic tile, black soap, wax, 47 1/2 x 34 1/2 x 2 inches. ©Rashid Johnson, Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Martin Parsekian.

Amid a period in which the black male experience in the United States is continuously marked by premature death, Johnson explains, “I have used black soap in my work for a number of years and I was interested in the fact that it is this material that is often employed by people with sensitive skin." The material usage of black soap evokes the concerns of racial anxiety raised in the portraits. The use of the black soap plays with the “idea of cleanliness” for Johnson, abstractly making the point that skin color can’t be cleansed away. Skin color has been used historically to mediate class and privilege.

Underneath his anxious wallpaper sit two large green plants that recall MoMA’s greenery-filled galleries of the 60s. For the artist, the plants remove  “the institutional presence” of the gallery space—while Melvin Van Peebles’ “Love, That’s America,” from his 1970 film Watermelon Man plays on loop. The song, with lyrics like: “this is the land of the sniper,” and “this heres the home of the sheriff, not the land of the free,” ties the show into a larger conversation about the history of racial injustice in America that spans beyond police brutality to include communal violence that has “made being a black male the most dangerous thing in America,” says Johnson, who grew up in the part of Southside of Chicago which has earned the moniker "Chiraq" in recent years.

The image of the artist's father dressed in a white karate uniform, accented with a green belt tied around his waist and books of revolution titles neatly stacked behind him, give off the air of hope and liberation. At the time, the tide of racism and bigotry confronted by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements had ebbed into a feeling in Black America that the future would be different.


The site-specific installation considers this contradiction of hope and despair through through the decades. “We are always considering, as time passes, that the world is becoming a better place, and although I do share that optimism, I do think that we don’t take into account that although we made significant strides in race and human relations, we are still negotiating dark spaces,” says Johnson. “The photograph of my father as a man in transition in 1977, and me so many years later making these portraits of men in distress creates a dichotomy that allows you to traffic in the complexity of how time passes.”

Courtesy of The Drawing Center. Photo by Jose Andres Ramirez.

Anxious Men continues through December 20th at the Drawing Center. For more information, click here.


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