Constructing Identity Through Conceptual Art

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis is a wonder to see. It is an intriguing and inviting space with a staff dedicated to finding rare and complex artists to display.

I came to this space as a facilitator for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), tasked with guiding workshops that help people examine the personal components that create human identity. In this role, I have to lead the group’s focus away from the literal representation of Rashid Johnson’s racial identity to a larger conversation on hidden elements that create identity. Many times the idea of the Other comes into this work. Whether it be through race, religious, gender, or any other identity (no hierarchy intended) most of us have felt the alienation of being the Other. My task was aided by facilitation pieces created by the ADL, designed to inspire conversations about identity. Inherent in these conversations is an exploration of privilege, targeting, bias and introspective self identification. My task was also aided by Rashid Johnson‘s exhibit, “A Message to Our Folks”  whose work is both excellent and layered in meanings.

Rashid Johnson’s art has a unique blend of humor, pop culture, black pride and futurism. It challenges the viewer to contemplate Mr. Johnson’s identity and in turn, invites the viewer to contemplate their own. Within the exhibit are pieces that illuminate history (a self-portrait on the grave of the great pugilist, Jack Johnson, inviting the double entendre) and pieces that embrace whimsy (a video piece titled “Black Yoga”).

Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson's Grave, 2006. Lambda print, 40 1/2 x 49 1/2". Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger, Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist.

Rashid Johnson, Self Portrait Laying on Jack Johnson’s Grave, 2006. Lambda print, 40 1/2 x 49 1/2″. Collection of Dr. Daniel S. Berger, Chicago. Image courtesy of the artist.

It was in Mr. Johnson’s inviting humor that I would always find my transition to discussions on identity. Humor often disarms fear and conversations that require introspection can be scary. Race and racism can be intimidating to discuss and dominating as topics.  I push people in facilitation to challenge their empathy and invite them to examine the uncontemplated.

I am always touched by students pushing to understand Others and Othering. The Rashid Johnson exhibit turned out to provide EXCELLENT assistance in understanding the experience of the black middle class. This also pushes people to understand how race and class mix within someone.

My time facilitating at the Kemper exposed some students to a new examination of self. A common metaphor we facilitators use is that of “planting seeds”. I know I will not see those seeds grow but I take great solace in knowing they do INDEED grow. Please support the Kemper and the ADL, it is true that art aids education.

By Ken Murdock (Tuesday, January 21, 2014)

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