27 Chido Johnson


Born Nyadiri, Zimbabwe, 1969 / BFA, University of Georgia; MFA Notre Dame University, Indiana / Lives in Detroit, MI

Chido Johnson grew up knowing the meaning of struggle. His Methodist missionary parents were deeply committed to the Zimbabwean independence movement, and one of his early memories is of the family being deported for his father’s political cartoons. It was a climate in which education, the church, political struggle, and to a certain extent, art, were interlinked. Temporarily relocating to neighboring Zambia, the family returned to Zimbabwe after independence, at which point Johnson attended the equivalent of high school – racially the only white boy, but totally culturally integrated into the politically charged environment of that post-colonial moment.

Relocating to the US in 1987 to continue his education, Johnson struggled with culture shock, and returned to Zimbabwe to apprentice with sculptor and stone carver Tapfuma Gutsa. A traditional craft, stone carving was also a major component of Zimbabwe’s post-independence cultural renaissance. Gutsa was to become a key mentor, exposing Johnson to seminal anti-colonial writers like Frantz Fanon, and challenging him on who he was as a person and an artist. In a pivotal early lesson, Johnson presented a meticulously-polished carved head, expecting to receive praise; Gupta responded by asking him, “Who taught you to carve like that?” – chastising Johnson for making a work that was technically realized, but which didn’t have any of his heart in it. When Johnson finally started his university studies in the US, he arrived knowing that he wanted to study stone carving, and firmly identifying as a post-colonialist. His studies culminated with works such as his MFA thesis piece Square Grid Humility, and the multiple clenched fists of Revolutionary Residue.

Arriving in Detroit to teach sculpture at CCS, Johnson realized that this was also a city that grew up knowing struggle, but one that only indirectly corresponded to his own experiences. The encounter that typified this awareness was seeing the iconic Joe Louis clenched fist, and recognizing the redundancy of exhibiting a Revolutionary Residue type work here. Subsequent pieces like me me me – which shows a table-mounted African tourist figure re-carved in Johnson’s image, and with a defensive body language – point to a loss of certainty in the African post-colonial identity in which he had earlier considered himself firmly embedded. Gradually, Johnson saw himself as sitting in the “hyphenated area” between African and European American cultures, and increasingly comfortable positioning his work to examine this space.

In 2009, Johnson made My Pink Caddi, a replica 1967 Cadillac fashioned in a similar manner to the wire-car toys that he knew growing up in Zambia and Zimbabwe. A low-grade ground-level video of the car being pushed along Woodward from Jefferson to Eight Mile shows the shivering skeletal car as an almost ghostly presence in the Detroit landscape – a surreal transmission between continents and across time. This project grew into WAWAD (Wireworker Autoworkers Association of Detroit), a socially-based work in which people are invited to become part of WAWAD by completing a wire-car and participating in a “cruise.” It is a project that works on many levels, but most of all, it is about art’s capacity to propagate culture outside of fixed national and racial categories. So far WAWAD has several hundred members across several continents. Other projects that fit into Johnson’s “hyphenated” world include the Zimbabwe Cultural Center in Detroit, which uses physical spaces in Detroit, Mutare, and Harare to facilitate a virtual community spanning three “cities in crisis,” and let’s talk about love baby, a growing library of artist-created romance novels that reference a genre of literature common in the Africa of his youth. jack’s vision documents Johnson’s climbing of a mountain above his childhood home to the abandoned site of a monument to Kingsley Fairbridge, the European “discoverer” of Mutare, and his “trusted helper” Jack. It is an emotionally and thematically complex work that weaves between Johnson’s personal story and broader issues relating to the history of the area, and that, perhaps, still awaits final resolution.

Clearly, Johnson’s recent projects have a pedagogic aspect, and one of the constants in his life has been the desire to teach. His achievements as an educator are remarkable, with, for example, former students like Michael E. Smith and Kevin Beasley being represented at the Whitney Biennial in 2012, and 2014 respectively. Tellingly, Johnson keeps his teaching and art practices separate for fear of becoming one of those professors who turn out copies of themselves; his greatest pleasure as a teacher is to see his students find their identity.

Steve Panton, July 2015

All images courtesy of the artist

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