Mohammed and me; working with abstraction had its beginnings in an intense observation of my daily life that then, very quickly, moved beyond that intimate scale to contrast those observations against much larger socio-economic events. The result is work that gives expressive form to the complexity of being simultaneously a particular, daily individual, (feet on the ground, riding the subway) and also an equal participant on the world stage. One of the main themes that emerges is my response to perceived differences based on race: black and white.
The accompanying images are from an exhibition at CANADA in 2001. The exhibition consisted of collaged self-portraits that were organized thematically around a comparison between myself and my friend and co-worker, Mohammed Moro.
Mr. Moro is a person who has had a life very different from mine, as can be seen from our enclosed resumes. He is from Ghana, spent his entire career in the military, being trained extensively by the United States, and served both the government of Ghana and the United Nations until he moved to New York City. We eventually met while working at the Plaza hotel where he was the maintenance supervisor for the fitness center and I was a massage therapist. Most remarkable to me is that he says he was one of a very small circle of officers who organized the 1979-81 overthrow of the Ghanaian government that resulted in the rule of Jerry John Rawlings, one of his closest friends.
The tools I used to render these perceptions (of Mohammed, me, “Africa”, rebellion, white faces, black faces, the Plaza Hotel) were the tools of visual art; composition, color, abstraction, line, representation. In particular, there is a sense in which the question “what is the abstraction?” can be posed to each of these pieces. Is it the “abstract” parts in each piece? Is Mohammed an abstraction for me? Is the entire piece an abstract self-portrait? Is “overthrowing a government in Africa” an abstraction for someone who was raised being told in school that it wasn’t worth studying the geography of Africa because the names kept changing. Is a “white” face an abstraction? Which of these is true? Obviously, I believe they all are in their own ways.

Tom Johnson

Date: 2002

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