Learning from the Work: A Follow-Up Interview with Chido Johnson

March 1, 2012 · Print This Article

When I interviewed Detroit-based artist Chido Johnson last month, I had planned on a short and timely discussion about his work Let’s Talk About Love, Baby, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAD) on February 10. As the conversation wandered, we began discussing a recent project, Jack’s Vision, that had taken the artist back to Zimbabwe, the country where Johnson was raised, but from which he had been estranged since the early 90s. At the risk of stepping on Caroline’s toes, (readers may be familiar with Caroline Picard‘s series of interviews for this blog exploring the nature of hybridity), Johnson and I likewise reflected on the concept of hybridity—a position that the artist has continued to negotiate in his art practice, reflecting on his European ancestry, African upbringing, and his current immersion in the hyper-American city of Detroit.

Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’m interested in the idea of reenactment, particularly in Jack’s Vision, where you reenacted a contentious narrative within the history of colonization while simultaneously reenacting your own biographical narrative. How do you view reenactment within your work?

Chido Johnson: For me, it’s a process of rewriting or reclaiming. With Jack’s Vision, I’m playing Jack (who is described as Kingsley Fairbridge’s trusted helper) and myself, as well as embodying the role of Fairbridge, who was the white child of the European colonizers who had a vision of where the city should be relocated. My DNA relates to Fairbridge, but culturally, being raised in Zimbabwe, I relate to Jack. When I created the film Mutare Mangwana [part of the Jack’s Vision project], I was creating a new monument for envisioning, which historically was limited to one vision, Fairbridge. There was a bronze statue of him that was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth at Christmas Pass in 1953 and removed following independence in 1982. Since then, it has just been a barren slab of stone with a small painted sign reading “scenic view.” There was still a negative element despite the absence of the bronze—even the empty space signified a purely colonial condition.

The location marked the historical spot that led to a city being relocated. The original location of Mutare (now called Old Mutare) could not access the railway that the imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, was trying to build connecting the colonies. Fairbridge’s was a surveyor Rhodes and entrusted his son to search across the mountains for a location where the city could relocate that had access to the south for a railway track. The young Fairbridge and Jack camped on this site as they build a campsite for his father to survey the new location, which is now the city of Mutare. Putting aside the colonial narrative, the site reminds us of the power of visions—the idea that both Jack and Kingsley stood looking down at the valley seeing visions as different as they may have been. I wanted to rewrite that moment—recognize that it was Jack who was from Mozambique, who very probably knew that path, and led Fairbridge up the mountain—but instead of undemocratically documenting one vision as was the case with Fairbridge, I wanted the diverse citizens of Mutare to claim their own multiple visions. So my collaborator, Naomie (Dr. Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo, who is currently a professor at the Institute of Peace, Leadership, and Governance at Africa University in Old Mutare) and I invited people to that space to sit in a chair and record their visions. Originally it was going to be the chair I made for the performance chirem(b)a , but then I felt that it should be very minimal, because I wanted the subject to be the people not on the carved elements of what they’re sitting on, so we chose one of those simple white, plastic chairs that you find in every back yard in every country and we had them sit on that. History is a very non-democratic narrative, and in this case, history is the single perception of a white child within a white settlement. What got us excited about the project was to democratisize history and subvert a site from its negative role into a positive one.

Artistically too, I made sure that there was more than one resolution to the problem. Instead of installing one monument, Jack’s Vision included several parts: Mutare Mangwana, the participatory video; Chirem (b) a, the process of me climbing the mountain with a collection of objects that themselves were very symbolic; and the narrative contribution— Dear Sekuru Jack, a letter to Jack, by Naomie. And the project is still on-going —the video Mutare Mangwana is still growing and people are still contributing to the narrative… there are some key people who we need in the video, and to truly bring the performance to everyone, we want to have the white plastic chair cast in bronze so anyone could use their cell phones and document themselves on the site recording their vision. In doing so subverting the role of a monument as a fixed historical narrative into a constantly growing narrative. The monument in its physical form is a performative stage.

SMP: Do you consider yourself a performance artist? What is the relationship between performance and object making in your work?

CJ: I’m totally an object maker. To consider myself a performance artist, I am very naive performer, because it was more that I had to climb to the top of the mountain. It was a very raw, very direct experience. I wasn’t thinking critically of performance art. Chirem(b)a, for example, was a raw need to connect with the experience of me as a kid climbing that mountain all the time. It was something that I was already connected to. I knew that in that case both Jack, Fairbridge, and I had climbed that mountain, so the project was to reenact those climbs… It seems like the older I get, the less I feel I need to intellectualize or appropriately position a thought but rather collaborate or stem new thought from an existing thought. The goal becomes less about its critical position and more about its honesty or realness. My process becomes less about whether the work is performance, installation, site specific but rather enacting my natural role as a little kid—the ways I used to play and the ways I would brainstorm and maintain curiosity about my role within daily life, connecting myself to the existence around me. I grew up in very political space, and the process of trying to find pleasures within it, and so I keep going back to puppets because that’s what I used to do as a little kid. Maybe that’s where the humor comes in, through the performance– not necessarily through its expression but maybe through its oddity. My background was in traditional figurative expression, carving in stone and wood, so I love the craft of things, but equally, I love the pleasure that comes from the interactions and activation between those “things” and people.  I am more interested in how the objects perform.

SMP: Had you worked in Zimbabwe as a professional artist before this project?

CJ: When I was 17, I came to the USA for school and had serious culture shock issues, so I went back to Zimbabwe for a year, and that’s when I began carving stone with an amazing sculptor who became my mentor, Tapfuma Gutsa. I visited once more when I was an undergrad in 1994, and since then, I could not really afford to easily. When I was awarded the Kresge Fellowship, I was finally able to go back in 2010 and 2011. It was an amazing experience! I am presently collaborating with my friend Naomie I mentioned earlier and another friend who joined our project, Kumbulani Zamuchiya. Besides the economic struggle in Zimbabwe, the art scene is very much alive.

SMP: Hybridity is a term that is often applied to your practice. Given that so much of your work addresses your biography and childhood, I’m curious how you addressed your own hybridity presumably before you even knew what that meant? How did you address identity as a young person and how did you eventually realize that the in between-ness of your hybrid identity provides a productive place to work from?

CJ: I grew up always being the other. Someone from another place. As an adult, I have connected with friends who grew up similarly though on the flipside. It is more common then we imagine, yet culturally still slowly accepted. With me, the question of othering wasn’t an issue until I came to the States. It was very simple growing up: the whites were fucked up. That was it. They had an unbalanced superiority complex, probably originating from the fact that the entire west was fucked up—President Reagan was in office when I came! As a child, I spoke Shona as my first language and it was later that I learned English.  It was only coming here that I realized that I’m white. Really white. It was shocking. It seemed much easier to drift between cultural spaces in Zimbabwe, in which I was already living in, and finding meaning or existence between complexities and tensions. It felt like as soon as I came to the USA I was immediately confined to my physical identity and not my social political or cultural perceptions. This is not to undermine my won personal struggles of being different growing up, but rather to embrace those struggles as well as the evident struggles of change existing around me. At the time Zimbabwe was a post-revolutionary state, a free country redefining itself from an oppressive minority rule that claimed a colonial cultural hierarchy. Subversive western culture that defied power systems such as hip-hop and reggae were really popular. Hell, I was into break-dance and basketball in high school in rural Zimbabwe.

I guess what I am trying to emphasize is that I do not want to necessarily idealize the hybrid, like in music, its easy to talk about the mixing, but we have to remember it comes from cutting, which is a violent act. So the hybrid to me is like blues music, dancing to lyrics of struggle. We all experience how media, mass culture, and social political systems marginalize us – I’m interested in those spaces of conflict that divides us, and hopefully reveal the beauty that connects us. That point of tension can be the point that’s exciting—full of possibility and new experiences of understanding.

SMP: Is this why you’re drawn to collaboration and bringing together diverse viewpoints?

CJ: Very much so!

SMP: How do you see your role as an organizer? How do you control the chaos of collaborative projects?

CJ: I realize that doing this stuff, I can’t plan everything. I need to be open or else I turn into a director, and I’m learning how to accept chaos. Some of my work has more of a sense of authorship and I do still craft objects, but it all comes back to the puppet and its role in the narrative. I did this show two years ago at Oakland University called Domestified Angst Second Recording, which was very rooted in my personal struggles of culturally assimilating. It was difficult to explain, as it was directly questioning here and there (Zimbabwe). I almost felt like I didn’t have an audience that understood what “there” meant. Not everyone understood the statements I was making because you need someone who has really experienced both to connect the two positions as well as the in between. It turned into almost an educational or didactic thing— the process of unpacking the layers. Kresge really did help quite a bit by allowing me to go back [to Zimbabwe]. When I was there, I was able to look at “here” differently. The meaning of place became something very new to me. Another really being impact of that exhibit was I had studio assistants for the first time. The final install of the work was not done by me but by artists that I truly trusted with my work. During that install I was teaching in Sweden, so as much as we planned everything out ahead of time, then skyping while I was there, I still felt like an audience when I finally walked into the installation. I finally understood what Amar Kanwar meant when talking about his piece a year earlier titled The Lightning Testimonies, as what he learnt from the work. I finally felt I was able to listen to my work. A major part of that is the work already had an existing rich conversation before it was installed. Those conversations existed between these artists assisting me (Vince Troia, Nate Morgan, Kevin Beasley, Kurt Greene) the curator Dick Goody and I before it was open to a wider audience. As much as I was the author of the work, it had already expanded beyond my initial internalized conversation and externalized it. This was very enriching and I realized how rewording it was working with others. The work exists as a shared point of inquiry between things and between makers. I think soliciting this conversation among different identities became more rewarding to me as a searcher and as a quest. Here, I’m trying to pose and open questions whereas before I was giving out statements and telling people how I felt and presenting how I looked saw the world. Working collaboratively externalizes personal narratives and reveals shared perceptions.

SMP: It seems as though the journey is a reoccurring theme in your work, thinking particularly of Jack’s Vision and your Detroit-based project, Dance for Diego. At the conceptual level, how does the journey factor into your practice

 CJ: Detroit is the longest I’ve lived in one place, and even so, the spaces I physically occupy feel psychologically like a hotel—a comfort that feels transitional. It comes down to this idea of moving, not being rooted, and constantly searching for something. The Woodward Avenue projects are the most specific to the city. My Pink Caddi was about relocation, while the Woodward Avenue Wire Car Cruise was about a cultural celebration—it was about the phenomena of that performance and the poetry of the wheels rolling down that actual road, similar to the way that Jack’s Vision is about being on that same sacred land. People looked at those cars like they were magic, and they weren’t considering the economy at that moment. Diego [Rivera]’s mural depicting workers from diverse ethnic backgrounds working together on the assembly line was in reality bullshit. But it was this vision of a city whose diversity Diego saw represented the city that inspired me to work with many different communities in the city and get them to come and participate. It was about the diversity of Detroit—Detroit as Diego imagined and painted, and realizing that vision today with all of us together here. But back to your question, I realize I never really investigated the journey physically, or at least consciously. It has more been about a cultural psychological journey.

SMP: Do you have any plans to continue working in Africa?

CJ: Right now, I’m working very hard to bring two artists here from Zimbabwe by teaming up with Mitch and Gina with the Power House Project. Detroit has had rich interactions with artists predominantly the East and West coast, and Europe, it is about time we artists coming in with different cultural lenses. There are such assumptions about African artists, but so much of the work produced by friends and collaborators in Harare share certain similar aesthetics such as installations made from found material. There’s a great deal of conversation about this type of work, but it all comes from a very western tradition. It’s about time we had artists coming in who give a diverse perspective about Detroit and the experience of this city.

Chido Johnson is the head of sculpture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and was a 2009 Kresge Fellow.

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