First Rashid Johnson photograph enters collection at National Gallery of Art

Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) is a highly celebrated contemporary artist who explores African American themes and issues of racial, cultural, and gender identity in a range of media. The National Gallery of Art has acquired its first Rashid Johnson photograph, The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Emmett) (2008, printed 2022), which depicts two portraits of one individual (one inverted left to right from the other).  

In 2008, inspired by Black middle-class clubs formed in the early 20th century to aid fellow African Americans as well as by Afrofuturist thinkers such as Sun Ra, Rashid Johnson invented a mystical secret society—The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club. The name references the term “New Negro,” coined by critic Alain Locke in 1925 to describe a rising generation of self-confident, assertive, and socially aware Black intellectuals. Johnson made a series of portraits from 2008 to 2009 that depicts the members of this fictional men’s club.

This Rashid Johnson photograph title also refers to Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was brutally murdered by white supremacists in Mississippi in 1955. The devastating photograph of Till’s mangled body published in Jet magazine at the insistence of his mother may seem disconnected from Johnson’s portrait of a well-dressed, well-groomed sitter. But this extraordinarily multilayered work offers yet another reference: the model’s parted hair and goatee recall portraits of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reputedly the most photographed man of the 19th century.

This artwork is on view in “The Double: Identity and Difference in Art since 1900” the first major exhibition to consider how and why artists have employed doubled formats to explore perceptual, conceptual, and psychological themes.

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