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Rashid Johnson
Rashid Johnson, “The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood)”, 2008Courtesy of Rashid Johnson

Rashid Johnson: child’s play

How a kid holding a toy gun shaped a new exhibition by the African-American photographer

From the bold, repetitive images that adorn the walls of London’s Hauser & Wirth gallery to the title of his latest exhibition, Smile, African-American socio-political photographer and artist Rashid Johnson is heavily influenced by the works of American street photographer Elliott Erwitt. “Pittsburgh (Black Boy With Gun to His Head)”, a striking image taken by Erwitt during the 60s, anchors itself as a pivotal reference point within Johnson’s latest body of work. “I keep coming back to this image over and over, and I’ve appropriated it into my work in the past,” says Johnson. “In many ways, the inspiration for the work in this show came from the anxiety and humour I see in this image.” Depicting a child with a wide grin on his face, holding a toy gun up to his head, “Pittsburgh” is heavily linked to the metamorphosis of Johnson’s work from his 2012 exhibition Shelter to this new collection of work in which ‘the figure’ features more prominently than ever before. Viewers may also recognise Johnson’s characteristic use of materials including bronze, wax and tile, with Smile placing a particular emphasis upon the line and the hand.

Johnson’s work, both past and present, continues to focus on the concept of ethnicity; a melting pot of childhood experiences, religion and cultural heritage. “I’ve never been able to separate those issues and look at them apart from myself,” notes Johnson. “Race, class, childhood experience, the books I found on my mother’s bookshelf, the albums I found in my father’s basement, these things are all part of who I am and will always be a part of my work.” This influence can be traced back to the artist’s early photographic work, in which cultural semiotics took centre stage and the studio was his location of choice. “For me, all the materials and objects I employ come from a specific space that’s very personal.” And in terms of what the viewer can expect from this latest exhibition? “I am happy if you leave with more questions than answers,” says Johnson.

Smile runs until March 7 at the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Click here for more information