Chido Johnson talking about a past performance piece, “Dance with Diego.”]

Building Bridges: Understanding Culture through Contemporary Art

Identifying as a bicultural artist, Chido Johnson uses his art to explore the narratives of “otherness.” His sculptures and performances seek to find the “selves” in the “other” from the perspective of cultural myth and history as well as from Johnson’s hyphenated self-identity that straddles the cultures of Zimbabwe and the United States. On November 1, Johnson talked to DAM Contemporaries as part of the fall 2017 Logan Lecture Season, 10 Years of Artists on Art. He touched on his inspirations and spoke about his recent performance and film works.

Paraphrasing Donna Haraway, Johnson talks about contemporary art as “not about the object, but about who’s looking at it and from where.” In other words, he considers narrative the grounding foundation of his philosophical approach to art. In Johnson’s eyes, deemphasizing the object allows it to become existential, to let each viewer ascribe their own meaning. Johnson’s belief in the existentialism of objects arises from introspection focused on his own bicultural identity, an introspection that requires using multiple perspectives simultaneously.

A recent work, “Jack’s Vision” (2010-2011), exemplifies the artist’s use of object symbolism in an attempt to find the “self” through the “other.” The narrative of the project begins with Kingsley Fairbridge, the son of a South African surveyor who initiated a child emigration program across southern Africa. Johnson’s hometown represents one location with a “Fairbridge Farm,” a local name for the orphanages that Fairbridge set up to house European children. In 1953, the Queen Mother unveiled a memorial to Fairbridge atop the mountain in Mutare, Zimbabwe where he envisioned his orphanage project. The sculpture depicts Fairbridge as a child with an adult described as the “male servant,” Jack. Removed in the 1980s during the Zimbabwean independence movement, the stone foundation remains today as a testament of Zimbabwe’s colonial history.

Johnson considers the mountains of Zimbabwe while discussing his background
Johnson considers the mountains of Zimbabwe while discussing his background.

Johnson’s project, “Jack’s Vision,” responds to the colonial image and historical narrative of Zimbabwe by complicating the singular vision of a dominant minority. He presents multiple perspectives to create a democratic vision that reflects Zimbabwe’s diverse cultural community. One film segment of the project, “Mutare Mangwana” (“Mutare Tomorrow”), incorporates the stone base where Fairbridge’s monument was positioned and features people Zimbabwe’s various social communities, sharing personal narratives. The democratic approach to the artwork seeks to create a richly textured voice with the underlying idea that “anyone could be the monument,” anyone can write the narrative. By embracing the complex layers of cultural heritage and identity, “Jack’s Vision” represents an “extremely personal” work for Johnson.

Speaking about heritage, Johnson considers building cultural bridges essential to “blurring” identity, a task that requires merging many voices. Johnson’s work concentrates on responding to questions about his own sense of place, of belonging. At the same time, his questions about identity and belonging contend with existentialism that humans can recognize universally. Even as he considers heritage from a multifaceted, personal perspective, Johnson’s art reflects the intricacy of human culture and identity, the intermingled voices that overlap and blur.

Images: Chido Johnson talking about a past performance piece, “Dance with Diego”; Johnson considers the mountains of Zimbabwe while discussing his background

Katherine Uhlir wrote for DAM Contemporaries.