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Rashid Johnson exhibit at Israel Museum seeks to create ‘discourse about Blackness’

Israel is a melting pot, that’s clear. Yet not every population is represented at the Israel Museum, a paradigm that curators Orly Rabi and Nirith Nelson wanted to change — and fast.

Their first step is “Rashid Johnson: Broken Crowd,” a small but powerful exhibit of three works by American mixed-media artist Rashid Johnson, well-known for using art to think about race and discrimination.

Opening August 8, “Broken Crowd” is both intimate and intense, bringing viewers in close contact with the oeuvre and outlook of Johnson, a Chicago-born New Yorker who has been talking about life as a Black man for the last two decades.

Nelson wanted to exhibit Johnson’s work in order to speak to Israelis of Ethiopian descent, something beyond the African archaeology department that describes a portion of their history but doesn’t represent any Ethiopian-Israelis born in Israel.

It’s an idea that Nelson has been thinking about for a while, following her previous work at Bezalel Academy for Arts and Design, where she helped bring Ethiopian students into the masters program in curatorial studies as the head of the department.

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“We need to have this discourse about Blackness, and you need leaders from the community to get that moving,” said Nelson. “I know the things that are missing.”

‘Broken Crowd,’ the central artwork in the Israel Museum exhibit featuring the works of Rashid Johnson, opening August 8, 2023 (Courtesy PR)

The exhibit is one that came about almost by accident, as Nelson, then new to the job as the senior curator of contemporary art, was looking at the museum’s latest acquisitions and noted two recent Johnson gifts.

She and Rabi planned the exhibit with just the two artworks, both large, expansive and thoughtful. Then a visit to a private home in Israel introduced her by chance to “Cosmic Slop ‘Grease,'” a Johnson work that was available on loan.

The exhibit now opens with Johnson’s 2011 painting “Cosmic Slop ‘Grease,’” a deeply textured canvas that makes viewers feel as if they’re drowning in its deep, dark tones of brown and black, perhaps temporarily stepping into that skin tone.

That’s probably intentional, as “Cosmic Slop” was created from wax and liquified black soap, a product widely used in West Africa for treating skin blemishes.

It’s titled for the 1973 Funkadelic album of the same name, choreographing the cosmic slop into visual expression, Johnson told Nelson, or translating music into a painting.

“It’s like a picture that is breathing; it feels like you’re almost touching the artist,” said Nelson. “It’s both absent and concrete.”

It takes a while to stare one’s fill of “Cosmic Slop,” along with the deep desire to reach out and feel the curves and bumps created by the soap and wax.

But then there’s the exhibit’s titled work, “Broken Crowd,” 243.8 x 304.8 x 7.6 centimeters of ceramic tile, mirror tile, branded red, oak, oyster shells, spray enamel, oil stick, black soap and wax, all forming dozens of masks, with each uneven set of eyes, nose and mouth set inside borders.

Johnson feels this mosaic is one of his best, said Nelson, with the masks representing what a Black man dons in order to behave in society — working inside the lines, but eventually wanting or needing to break free and crash through the barriers that are dictated.

“It’s like a personal shout of anxiety,” she said of the work donated by the West Coast branch of the American Friends of the Israel Museum.

It also feels reflective of Israeli society right now, added Nelson. There was no judicial overhaul or protests taking place when the exhibit was planned, but “Broken Crowd” now relates both intentionally and locally to Israel and its current turmoil, even though it’s by an American artist.

‘The Hikers,’ one of the artworks in ‘Broken Crowd,’ the Israel Museum exhibit featuring the works of Rashid Johnson, opening August 8, 2023 (Courtesy PR)

The third piece in the exhibit is “The Hikers,” a seven-minute 2019 video work in which two Black dancers wearing African masks meet and reveal themselves to one another while moving across the top of a wooded hill.

The video is about the search for nature and something different with choreography by Claudia Schreier and music by Antoine Baldwin, as the dancers are planted in a landscape that, while it doesn’t necessarily relate to them, still brings them to unmask and expose themselves.

“When you do something that is meaningful, even intimate, it can be a very powerful experience with an artist like Rashid,” said Nelson. “And Rashid specifically is a voice that is both personal and collective.”

“Rashid Johnson: Broken Crowd” opens August 8 and will run through December 2, 2023, at the Israel Museum.