How to make an Afro-futurist mixtape

Rashid Johnson calls for a dash of magical realism and historical fiction in ‘Message to Our Folks’

Space is the Place, as the jazz composer and patron saint of Afro-futurism, Sun Ra, professed in his 1974 science fiction film. And in the High Museum’s ongoing exhibit of conceptual post-black artist Rashid Johnson’s work, that sentiment is conveyed on a cosmic and concrete level.

Message to Our Folks is a veritable mixtape of Johnson’s own Afro-futurist narrative, synthesized through mixed media taken from his collections spanning his decade-old career. In his first major solo museum exhibition, the Chicago native creates a mash-up of black history, science fiction, and the unique cultural fingerprint of his upbringing as the son of a mother who was an academic and a father who ran his own CB radio business. There’s no separation between the practical and the magical in Johnson’s worldview. And the right recipe of seemingly mundane objects, time-stamped artifacts, and forward-looking texts — whether it’s a potted fern, Funkadelic’s 1973 album Cosmic Slop, or Harold Cruse’s seminal 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual — can be transformed into something supernatural.

Mirrored tiles reflect a dissected image of the viewer in “The Moment of Creation,” while doubling as a shrine with shelves for such utilitarian and mystical items as shea butter, black soap, an antique CB radio, and space rocks. Near the top sits the album cover of Les McCann’s masterwork Music Let’s Me Be, released in 1977, the same year of Johnson’s birth. “The goal is for all the material to miscegenate into a new language with me as its author,” Johnson’s accompanying artist statement reads.

Yet there’s something surreal about grappling with the shifting nature of black identity within the confines of a white-box gallery like the High Museum. In a 2008 review of a site-specific installation, Time Out Chicago wrote about Johnson’s ability to transform a “space associated with white privilege into a sanctuary for black traditions.” Johnson won the 2012 David C. Driskell Prize, an honor established by the High Museum to celebrate work in African American art. But in some ways, the message Johnson’s attempting to convey is subdued by the space. Instead of being magically transported to a non-Western worldview, I was overcome by the looming sense of cultural isolation. (It didn’t help that the earbuds typically provided to listen to the musical selections accompanying the exhibit were conveniently missing on my two visits).

In other ways, that dichotomy heightens Johnson’s message. In the short film “Sweet Sweet Runner,” the same theme music that propels the police-dodging protagonist in Melvin Van Peebles’ classic pre-blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) is used to soundtrack scenes of a middle-aged African-American man taking an innocent morning jog through New York’s tony Upper East Side to mind his physical health. The intended irony is magnified by the High’s otherwise harmless security guard, who patrols the space while armed with a walkie-talkie to make sure patrons don’t break the gallery rules.

When his deconstructions of African-American reality resemble home furnishings — as in “Death By Black Hole,” on which he stacks 72 copies of the book of the same title by contemporary astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — it’s a subtle reminder that indigenous African art is always functional in nature. Maybe the most symbolic inclusion is Johnson’s series of imagined photographic portraits of the Boulé, the bona fide secret society of black elitists that was prominent in the early twentieth century. As the title suggests, “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club” wryly comments on the need to shape one’s existence and self-definition in a way that often defies the stifling social norms of the day. Whether in science fiction or in real life, aliens are always trying to find their way back home.