Artist Rashid Johnson, Director of HBO’s “Native Son,” on Escapism and Upending the Notion of the “Monolithic Experience”

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Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, the artist Rashid Johnson had a “mixed bag”—racially, at least—of close friends. There were, he says, “four black guys, two Asian guys, two Jewish guys, a white English guy.…” They still keep in touch today via a text chain. This perspective, combined with the one ingrained in him by his Ph.D. history professor mother, who introduced him from a young age to the works of 20th-century African American writers such as Amiri Baraka, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington, and his tinkerer father, who owned a Wicker Park electronics shop, led to a deep, contextualized curiosity about the human condition: who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going.

This multicultural (and intellectual) background continues to feed Johnson—as water and light would a plant—growing his insatiable appetite for better understanding the richness, complications, and contradictions of being human, each of us with our own roots, carrying our own energies—no one necessarily a part of any “monolithic experience.” It has also naturally led him to explore the social, cultural, and political realities of being a black man in today’s world. His multidisciplinary practice, which spans painting, drawing, sculpture, filmmaking, and installation art, is both biographical and collective. Underlying much of Johnson’s work is the idea of escapism—that each of us, on some level, yearns for another reality. Such a narrative is at the core of his directorial debut, HBO’s Native Son, released earlier this year and based on the 1940 Richard Wright novel of the same name (the screenplay was written by the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks). It is also at the heart of “The Hikers,” a ballet film shot on the side of a mountain in Aspen, currently on view at Museo Tamayo in Mexico City (through Nov. 10) and opening on Nov. 12 (through Jan. 25, 2020) at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where it will be shown alongside several other works by Johnson, including ceramic mosaics, paintings, and a large-scale sculpture.

On this episode of Time Sensitive, Johnson talks with Spencer Bailey about the steep challenge of turning Wright’s famed novel into a feature film; using materials such as shea butter, black soap, and plants in his artworks; why he remains somewhat ambivalent about the idea of “wokeness”; and his ongoing fascination with the complexity and diversity of not only blackness but also whiteness.

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