Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity: Schomburg Center Artist & Educator M. Scott Johnson Exhibits at 59th Venice Biennale

By Lisa Herndon, Managers, Schomburg Communications and Publicity
June 28, 2022
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Schomburg Center visual arts educator M. Scott Johnson creates the first of a three-sculpture triptych for the 59th Venice Biennale in Italy in fall 2021 in front of the Center.

Photo: Lisa Herndon

On a crisp morning last fall, the rhythm of the hammer and chisel rang out in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The stone chips were flying as M. Scott Johnson, a sculptor and visual arts instructor at the Center’s Junior Scholars Program, began work on the first sculpture of his triptych, The Metamorphosis of High John the Conqueror: Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity.

Johnson encouraged passersby in front of the Center to assist him in fashioning a marble bust of the Black folklore superhero, High John the Conqueror, and discuss the piece.

The sculpture, and the two others Johnson would later create, would become part of an installation at the 59th Venice Biennale in Italy. Johnson’s research and exploration of the Center’s archives inspired his submissions.

“This institution has helped shape my imagination for the last 20 years,” said Johnson, who began teaching at the Center in 2003 and wanted to create one of his sculptures there. “None of this happens without the resources of the Schomburg.”

Johnson’s triptych reflects his journey as an artist. He rendered the sculptures in marble and springstone, materials indigenous to Zimbabwe. It is where he received an apprenticeship under stone sculptor and national hero Nicholas Mukomberanwa from 1996-1999. 

Under Mukomberanwa, Johnson explored the variety of stones and honed his version of Afro Surrealism. He describes his work as blending the abstract and figurative while navigating a space between Africa and its diaspora in North America.

The triptych for the Biennale represents three carved portraits of High John. Johnson was first introduced to this narrative in the work of Jim Haskins's book, Voodoo & Hoodoo: Their Traditional Crafts Revealed by Actual Practitioners.

The folklore character represents the spirit of Black freedom amid oppression. High John is considered a pilot and navigator in these parallel worlds as he transforms our bodies and leads us through the darkness.

A shape shifter and African nobleman, High John was sold into enslavement during the transatlantic slave trade. When an enslaved person was near to breaking under the brutality of slavery, High John would appear and pull the person's spirit out of their body, teleporting them to another dimension where there was no pain and suffering.

The installation represents High John as a child, adolescent, and adult. Each bust interprets his unfolding, mutating, and ascending.

Left to right: Deodate (High John as an Infant), springstone, 2022; Tutnese Incantation (High John as a Juvenile), springstone, 2021; High John the Conqueror (Adult), bardiglio marble, 2009

Photos: M. Scott Johnson

Johnson drew additional aesthetic inspiration from the collection of husband and wife anthropologists Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits. Their archives contains representations of Afro-maroon wood carvings, using a technique they described as “wood within wood.” The Saramacca and Njuka utilitarian objects reflect the cultural syncretism of multiple African and indigenous American carving traditions.

Johnson began sculpting High John as an infant in front of the Center’s building as a public works project funded by the New York Foundation of the Arts. The Center’s Director Joy L. Bivins supported Johnson’s idea of community engagement in front of the building.

“It’s really a piece that was created by the energy and citizens of Harlem,” he said. “I just brought out the highlights and the details to finish the work.”

With Deodate, High John as an infant, “The desire was to project joy and simplicity in its abstract representation of a child,” Johnson said.

“I wanted the movement to also incorporate the natural contours of the stone, thereby reflecting its unique and ancient character. Invoking the Congolese (Nkisi) practice of embedding ritual sculpture with objects and plants of power. Each of the sculptures is spiritually activated by High John the conquer root (Ipomoea purga) purposely embedded within its mass.”

Johnson's triptych is part of the group exhibition, Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined, curated by Myrtis Bedolla of Galerie Myrtis. Fellow exhibiting artists included Tawny Chatmon, Larry Cook, Morel Doucet, Monica Ikegwu, Delita Martin, Arvie Smith, and Felandus Thames. They all took part in a historic conversation during the Biennale where they discussed their works

“It’s a wonderfully powerful moment to project an authentic and rich take on African American visual culture,” Johnson said. “I believe the future exists in relating to the world as a nation within a nation…realizing our voice can transcend America.”

Afro-Futurist Manifesto is at the Palazzo Bembo, a 15th-century palace and birthplace of Pietro Bembo (1470–1547), a Venetian scholar, poet, literary theorist, and cardinal.

Galerie Myrtis made history at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. This is the first year a Black-owned gallery has been invited to present in a Biennale-affiliated exhibition.

Photo: Alexander Hyman, Jr. Image courtesy of Galerie Myrtis.

Established in 1895, the Venice Biennale is sometimes called the “Olympics of the Art World.” Invited by the European Cultural Centre, Galerie Myrtis is the first Black-owned gallery to present at the Biennale-affiliated exhibition, Personal Structures: Time, Space, and Existence.

At the opening, a Black British gallerist walked up to Johnson in tears after witnessing the rich representation of Black Artists during the Biennale. We’ve been hoping to get this type of representation at the Biennale for so many years, Johnson recalled her saying.

Black artists made history on another front. Black women took home the top prizes. Britain’s Sonia Boyce won the Golden Lion for Best National Presentation. American Simone Leigh received the Golden Lion for Best Artist in the Biennale’s central exhibition. The Ugandan national pavilion was also given special recognition.

According to its website, 2022’s event includes 213 artists from 58 countries, showcasing contemporary works, and 80 new projects conceived specifically for the exhibition. The Biennale runs through November 27.

In October, Johnson will return to Venice to teach a seminar to Italian youth on African American history and folklore as part of the exhibition’s public programming.

Inspired by the Biennale and Afro-Haitian spiritual ceremonies he witnessed over the years, Johnson expanded on a presentation he saw there to display the paintings on canvas created by his Junior Scholars students, a free Saturday program for youth ages 11 to 18. Instead of hanging their paintings on the Center’s walls, students showcased their works on the floor of the Center’s American Negro Theatre as part of their one-day exhibition, Invasion.

Schomburg Center Materials M. Scott Johnson Studied as Inspirations

The research work of Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits and the artifacts collected by the couple served as the inspirations for M. Scott Johnson's triptych, The Metamorphosis of High John the Conqueror: Tribute to an Afrofuturist Deity.

NYPL Digital Image 1690471

If you would like to explore the materials Johnson used as his inspirations, you can make a research appointment to visit each of the Center’s divisions.  

Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits Collections

“Melville Herskovits was such a pivotal anthropologist in American history,” Johnson said. “He highlights the concept of cultural relativism, which looks at judging a culture based on its own ethics versus a Euro-centric ethic.” He influenced the works of legendary figures in Black history such as writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) and scholar Johnetta B. Cole (born 1936).

Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits (1897-1972) were American anthropologists who studied the cultures of Black people across the African Diaspora. Melville J. Herskovits (1895-1963), who taught at Northwestern University, founded the first African Studies department in the U.S. in 1947.

With pieces originating mostly from Western Africa and Suriname, the Art and Artifacts Division holds drums, furniture, musical instruments, utensils, and more offering a comprehensive look at African and African American cultures. There are over 900 items in the collection. 

Johnson said he first became aware of the Herskovits collection through conversations with the Art and Artifacts’s curator Tammi Lawson. With her assistance, he had a chance to closely observe the many intricately sculpted utilitarian objects.

“These Saramacca and Njuka carvings reflect a fusing of multiple African and indigenous American aesthetic traditions,” Johnson said.

The Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division holds the Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits Papers. They consist of personal diaries and field notes from trips to locations such as Suriname (1927), Nigeria (1931), Haiti (1936), and Brazil (1941-42).

There are over 100 audio recordings in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division reflecting the couple’s interest in ethnic folk music.

The digital collections of the Photographs and Prints Division holds personal pictures of the couple and images from research travels to countries such as Cuba and Trinidad. More pictures are available to view in person.

Syncretic Vibrations: Exploring the Mosaic of Blackness

Johnson also served as the lead instructor for the Center’s Teen Curators, an art history and curatorial program for youth. It ran from 2015-2020. The 2018-2019 class used materials from the Melville J. and Frances S. Herskovits collections as part of their exhibition, Syncretic Vibrations: Exploring the Mosaic of Blackness, which was displayed at the Center’s American Negro Theatre. It is available to view online.

Voodoo & Hoodoo: Their Traditional Crafts Revealed by Actual Practitioners

James Haskins’s 1978 book, Voodoo & Hoodoo:Their Traditional Crafts Revealed by Actual Practitioners, discusses medicine men and sorcerers across the diaspora, how they cast spells, conjured good and evil spirits, and practiced their magic. High John the Conqueror is one of the characters featured. The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division has this title. 

 

To learn more about the Junior Scholars Program’s exhibition, Invasion, or to see photos, read “Floor Space Becomes Wall Space for Schomburg Center Junior Scholars Exhibition.”

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The Schomburg Junior Scholars program is made possible through the generous support of the New York Life Foundation, the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc., the New York City Council, and the New York State Legislature.

The exhibition, Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined, was made possible by sponsors and partners including the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts and the Maryland State Arts Council.