MONUMENTAL INSTALLATIONS composed of black scaffolding have been the star attraction at Rashid Johnson‘s recent exhibitions. Last fall, “Fly Away” at Hauser & Wirth in New York featured “Antoine’s Organ,” the artist’s largest architectural grid work ever shown in the United States. Overflowing with plants, and filled with lights, video screens, shea butter and books, the structure explored the show’s references to history, escape and identity. The titles Johnson chose hewed close to the themes. There were multiple copies of Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” and stacks of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois was present, and Richard Wright’s “Native Son” was also among the signifying objects.
Wright’s 1940 novel is the focus of the Johnson’s latest project. A multi-discplinary artist who works in film, sculpture, painting and installation, he is expanding his practice to include film. Johnson’s directorial debut is an adaptation of “Native Son.”
Bow and Arrow Entertainment announced it acquired the novel. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks is adapting the classic and Johnson is attached as the film’s director. Bow and Arrow partners Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman are producing the film. Malcolm Wright and Julia Wright, the author’s grandson and daughter, represent Wright’s estate and are serving as consultants on the project.
Set in 1930s Chicago, “Native Son” tells the dramatic story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man caught in a downward spiral after he suffocates a white woman. The novel makes a larger comment about how race, poverty, desperation and hopelessness inform the black experience in inner cities. After it was published, the book immediately sold more than 215,000 copies. Although it is ensconced in the African American literary canon, James Baldwin was not a fan. He derided “Native Son,” calling it a protest novel.
Johnson first read “Native Son” in his late teens and said it was “a real eye opener.” The artist told artnet News: “It was such a complicated book and story that it just really changed the way I was seeing the world. I came back to it in my early 30s and was thinking about the times that we were living in and how significant a book like this continues to be. It just stayed on my mind, the idea of an incredibly complicated black character and investigating his incredibly difficult, complicated circumstances in a world that was also kind of pitted against him. All of those things against him came to me while trying to bring it to the screen.”
“It was such a complicated book and story that it just really changed the way I was seeing the world. I came back to it in my early 30s and was thinking about the times that we were living in and how significant a book like this continues to be.” — Rashid Johnson, artnet News
He spearheaded the project—getting Bow and Arrow to back the film and identifying Parks as the writer best-suited to adapt “Native Son” for the screen.
Parks is the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer in Drama. She won it in 2002 for “Top Dog/Underdog.” The play opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater starring Don Cheadle and Jeffrey Wright, and later made it to Broadway where Mos Def replaced Cheadle. A professor at NYU, she serves as master writer chair at the Public Theater, and is developing an original series for Amazon. Ironically, Baldwin was her mentor, recognizing and encouraging her writing pursuits early on.
In addition to being the first artist to serve on the board of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation since the museum’s founding director did so, Johnson is vice chair of the board of directors at Performa. While “Native Son” is his first foray into film, he does have some experience directing. About four years ago, he reimagined “Dutchman,” the Obie Award-winning play written by Amiri Baraka, then known as LeRoi Jones. Eschewing a traditional theater setting, Johnson presented a live performance of the 1964 work at the Russian & Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village for Performa 13. CT
TOP IMAGE: Rashid Johnson. | Photo by Eric Vogel
Currently on view at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, “Rashid Johnson: Hail We Now Sing Joy” (Feb. 9-May 21, 2017) features the artist’s monumental installation “Antoine’s Organ.”
Many editions of “Native Son” featuring a variety of cover designs have been published over the years. Rashid Johnson’s work has been documented in a few volumes. “Message to Our Folks” is the most comprehensive documentation of his practice. “Rashid Johnson,” focuses on the artist’s sculptural and installation works, and “Rashid Johnson: Anxious Men” explores a series of black soap and wax-on-tile portraits presented in a site-specific installation in the Drawing Room gallery in New York.
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