Writing about Rashid Johnson's exhibition Shelter at South London Gallery feels awkward. Rashid Johnson is an African American living in New York producing socio-politically informed post-Colonial work. I am an English Caucasian female and feminist art historian. Inevitably there is a lot in this show that will resonate with me and a lot that will go over my head. Which doesn't invalidate my responses but does (as my shrink would probably tell me) warrant acknowledgment.
I'm encouraged by Rashid's words in an interview with Matthew Day Jackson earlier this year: “I've always had a difficult time recognising myself in historical narratives although I grew up with them as a backdrop to my childhood because my mother was a historian. But I didn't relate to those histories nor did I want to reproduce or live them. Now I've begun to pick and choose which parts I find useful and in many cases I also create my own. The artist functions as a time traveler. Using my work as a means or portal to effectively rewrite history, not as a revision but as a work of fiction.”
This feels liberating, permission to make my own way and to embrace ambiguity.
The artist, we are told, has transformed South London Gallery's main space into “an immersive environment”. On the walls are works made of black soap and wax, others comprised of mirrors, shea butter, LP covers, oyster shells and books, as well as photography and branded flooring. All of these are recurring media in Johnson's work.
In the centre four day beds dominate the room. Each occupies its own persian rug, two standing on end, one on its side, only one embracing its intended usefulness on all four legs. It feels like a rebellion of sorts, an uprising. Upholstered in zebra skins, their frames and rugs are defaced with black soap and wax or otherwise scratched and scared. The pelt recalls the Corbusier / Perriand / Jeanneret B306 Chaise Lounge, cow hide versus zebra flagging up African-ness with a nod to modernist aesthetic and middle class collectibility. Irreversibly interwoven yet disparate cultures.
This curious ordered chaos is the setting for an imagined society, perhaps a future society, in which psychotherapy is freely available to all. But something has gone awry: the couches aren't “available” and the pot plants look down on us from the rafters way above. As a psychotherapeutic environment it is topsy turvy. With one hand it offers and with the other it takes away, which may or may not be an intended comment on the psychotherapeutic process itself. Is there shelter here one wonders?
Persian rugs are highly symbolic and mystical objects, the designs influenced by factors in the weavers life, personal, religious and cultural. They also set a strong Freudian tone - the father of psychoanalysis was a voracious rug collector, his talking cure couch always draped with Persian carpet. As Tom Morton suggests, they are also emblematic of the artistic achievements of a non-Western culture as well as functioning as “a place holder for American anxieties about Islam”. That the rugs are here subtly defaced with black paint and wax suggests violence - mental, emotional and physical - a violence associated, at least in part, with racial tensions.
Whilst flagging up the fictional nature of histories this show brings together questions of race, power, violence, growth, flux and much more in a deep and poetic investigation that has things to say to all of us, whatever our real and imagined personal histories may be.
28 September to 25 November
written for This is Tomorrow