Born in Chicago in 1977, Johnson has risen to be one of the most influential African American artists of his generation, working in photography, performance, painting and installation. Often using Black Soap, Shea Butter, books, records and textiles to speak about black culture and consciousness, Johnson creates visually compelling works that challenge entrenched ways of thinking about the black experience and emphasize its plurality. In his work he often enters into dialogue with black American creative and intellectual figures whose impact has transcended race, extending their legacy. Native Son (2019, HBO), his first feature film is based upon the 1940 novel by Richard Wright, a story that helped change 20th century Race Relations in the USA.
In early photographs by Johnson we see the artist’s imaginative investigations into the construction of black identity. In Self Portrait as The Professor of Astronomy, Miscegenation, and Critical Theory at "The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club” Center for Graduate Studies, (2009), Johnson references the 1925 publication ‘The New Negro'. This Anthology of poetry, critical thinking and short stories contains contributions from the most important minds of the Harlem Renaissance including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Edited by Alain Locke, the book attempted to challenge and alter the racist stereotypes of the time. The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club is a fictitious organisation used by Johnson to consider the need for community, even if it is speculative and futuristic.
Johnson’s work has been exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis; the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC; the Institute of Contemporary Photography in New York; the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.