Rashid Johnson’s ‘Stranger’ and the Desire to Be One

Amaya Oswald, age 17

Rashid Johnson’s “Stranger,” which was recently held at the Hauser and Wirth gallery in Somerset, United Kingdom, uses art to explore the complex way that human identity is constantly shaped by unfamiliar experiences and culture, all while progressively unfolding a story of being an outsider. Growing up in an African-American household in Chicago, Johnson then moved to New York City as an adult, and later to the U.K. This infusion of culture across cities and countries is the backdrop for “Stranger.”

Beginning with three massive, metal-wired structures, the first room of the experience excellently captures Johnson’s personal identity; each cage-like framework embraces bottle-green African plants tangled in the metal, attempting to escape their containments. Jutting out from the wire shelves lie books about the African-American experience in the United States, and propped in the center of the wire cage are timid yellow heads carved with African shea butter with crosshatched mouths and deep, sad eyes. The fusion of these many native African materials and diverse art forms serves to create a vibrancy and richness emphasized by being confined in one room. This arrangement is shocking against the barren English brick walls of the exhibition room and makes the structure feel especially alien.

The next room of the exhibition is an entirely different scene; the walls are spaced with daringly large, sunken faces and darkly scratched coal eyes. The repetitious faces are a stark contrast to the first room that overwhelmed the space with identity, and the fierce black marks express a kind of rugged anger at the world. Just as Johnson’s hand would be while drawing all those faces, his identity seems to become tired and maddened. The faces are dizzying on the walls, and such constancy of thought in the one room makes the atmosphere charged and suspenseful.

A few more pieces follow, bearing the same dark frustration, before there is just one last, long oblong room left. Still dizzy, I amble through the door to see what the final room holds in store. There is just one piece, and it is shining vibrantly from the bookend of the room: a fluorescent neon sign that reads “Run.”

The soft, electric instruction is clear and direct. The command run is not negative — instead, there is in fact something positive about this structural beauty. The glowing italics, with all their allure and power, are simply urging me to experience. Run, it says. To different worlds, be a wanderer — despite the side-effects of a complex identity, continue to develop your individuality, and experience nothing if it isn’t new. Be a stranger.