Provocations: Rashid Johnson

I recently went to Richmond, Virginia to visit my sister at VCU. While there, we went to the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA). One of the exhibitions there was called Provocations, and was created by artist Rashid Johnson.


When I first entered the Provocations exhibit, I immediately felt like I was transported to another part of the world. African music was playing over the speakers–though I was told that sometimes live bands would play instead–and in front of me was this beautiful installation called Monument. Made of steel cubes and filled with various plants, televisions, books, and sculptures made of shea butter, this installation is unique from any others I have seen before.

Johnson included many aspects that helped convey his exhibition’s peaceful, natural, and traditional yet modern vibe. The steel grid structure is said to mimic unfinished modern architecture or minimalist sculptures. The strong material reflects strength and endurance, yet it also resembles cages and cells, which reflects Johnson’s personal history as an African-American from Chicago. Also, the shea butter Johnson used for the sculptures strewn throughout was made from a West African nut to further declare Johnson’s roots and history. The addition of the books and televisions, however, show the mix between his own culture and the American culture he grew up with.

In the overview of the exhibit, the ICA made sure to emphasize the location of Johnson’s Provocations as well. It is found on the top floor of the museum, and unless you use the elevator, you must walk up several slowly ascending ramps as the music from the room gets increasingly louder. While it’s not clarified if this sense of ascension is religious, emotional, or personal, it does reinforce the idea of the rise of power and strength seen in the upward steel beams used in Monument. And while I didn’t notice this then, I later learned that the name Monument itself is especially significant, since this piece is Johnson’s first work ever displayed below the Mason-Dixon line.


When I went to this exhibit, I found it extremely calming, and it seemed to be a good place to relax and unwind. The tall white walls were brightly lit; this along with the abundance of plant life and the music made the room feel warm and light. There is very little about this exhibit I would have wanted to change. One part of Monument, however, was a small tunnel through the steel beams that visitors could walk through. While it was absolutely amazing to look up through the plants and steel beams towards the ceiling, the passage was very narrow and would fill quickly. Also, there were a lot of visible wires for the electronics across the exhibit; I think hiding these wires would have made the exhibit be more inviting and look more professional.

As the name suggests, Provocations is an installation meant to elicit a response from viewers as they contemplate the mixture of the past, present, and future. Johnson successfully achieved this, as it forced me and those I came to the ICA with to think about the vast varieties of culture and art techniques throughout the world. I think the ICA was the perfect place to display Provocations, and I would gladly go back to see it again.