Breaking the Borders to Reveal the Realness with Chido Johnson

May 13, 2015 Artists, Interview

“Having lived between two cultures, the United States and Zimbabwe, has led my work to persistently locate cultural spaces identified as other and different in an attempt to find physical or narrative performances to transform and negotiate a new sense of self, place and belonging.” — Chido Johnson, 45, Detroit, close to Hamtramck. This is an interview that results in Chido reflecting on borders between cultures, between nations, between language and the fact that borders reflect systems but not necessarily realness. Enjoy. — Sean

I’m curious as to what the history of the wire care project is and where the idea to bring it to Detroit came from.

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, but I was also raised by my father who was an artist, actually, and he, of many things, became a political cartoonist for a revolutionary paper. When I was five he got deported from what was then Rhodesia and got exiled to Zambia.

When I was living in Zambia it was the late 70’s early 80’s and it was a really hard time economically, for many reasons, but there was hardly any access for leisure, like toys. We used to make our own soccer balls, by putting newspaper in plastic or trash in plastic, twist it, turn it around, twist it, put two ties on it—and that was our soccer ball. Besides that, we also made wire cars. People would find wires on the street — it was questionable where some of that wire was coming from, very few fences existed. The older children were really good, they would make really nice shaped cars.

We had one television channel, so the access to the outside world was just the one TV channel, it started at 5 p.m. and end at 11 p.m., so these other things that existed were through intimate knowledge. This car existed this way — ‘have you heard of a BMW?’, ‘have you heard of this?’. People would draw this line that they had found from a magazine and fantasize about these cars. I made a car too, when I was ten years old, it was horrible, really bad — my friends made way better. But I remember from way back then, years later having lived in so many other places, I found myself living in Detroit.

I had been in Detroit for seven years without a car; I walked everywhere or imagined that a cab would show up (those days rarely), so a lot of walking. I started getting the feeling I really needed a car, so I made my first pink Cadillac made out of wire. The reason for that was actually that I was on sabbatical, my first sabbatical, only sabbatical, hah, but it A few Wire Carswas a moment where I had lived in Detroit for so many years and it was actually the same year I found out I got the Kresge fellowship. So those two questions existed: Detroit was the first time I lived the longest time in terms of one city, that was making me really question in terms of where I belonged, who was I?

“…But my place was always that I was a representative of a different place and a different time, not of the present in a weird way.”

I grew up as an artist, always talking, especially coming to the USA, about this other place and either through trying to keep a different political lens, coming from a non-western culture or some political position. But my place was always that I was a representative of a different place and a different time, not of the present in a weird way.

This time I was starting to question about my placement and also I started to question ‘am I staying here?’. I was thinking I was just coming and leaving as I had done so many other places — then I got selected for the Kresge and it was very powerful, this feeling of being embraced to represent. I started trying to figure out, ‘what can I do, how can I shift how I work and what does place mean to me?’. So I started to recreate things I did in my childhood.

I grew up with records. At the time I lived at the Belcrest, I would walk down Woodward to the record store and I would buy a record and walk back home. Actually, I didn’t have a record player, I just loved the symbolic — the material of it, but also reenacting this. So it was kind of fooling myself, re-enacting things from a different time to think they were of this time or place. I was doing projects on Woodward, so it was really getting in my head.

Detroit public library has this big portrait of Copernicus, a 10 ft sculpture. So I did a 10 ft portrait of al-Tusi—Iran was celebrating its 750th anniversary of al-Tusi’s observatory. I had a ten-hour staredown, where the two astronomers became professional starers on film, but it was about Woodward, about this location, to me it was really quite magical, but also realizing that it was less about Copernicus and more about nationalism. So there were so many things I was questioning about me: my placement, who am I e.g nationalism.

In this idea of this in-between spaces where I belong Woodward became about this transient, almost like water between Poland and Iran, this space between east and west. Coming from a post-colonial world, the way I relate to Detroit was, it was not unfamiliar, it’s the most familiar place I’ve been to in the USA. My own experiences of the rest of the USA, not to be critical, minus Chicago—the history does exist there—has this replicated drywall scheme. There’s something about here about seeing the scars or wrinkles on somebody’s face, the gum in a smile that felt very human, not distraught, but real, a good real. I really felt connected to that.

One thing I was thinking about was the history of what it meant to be a foreigner in a city of immigrants and about Detroit, how it was pretty empty at that time — not many [CCS] faculty were living down here at that time. I was thinking about outside, about drawings, British outlines of colonies were pink. I was doing a lot of installations where the walls were pepto-bismol pink. Al-Tusi was pink foam. Pink was in my head. All these different things merged together, not like one linear idea, as a complex or hybridic way of looking at things was the 1967 pink Cadillac.

1967 was the height of the riots, the colonization of the suburbs, so the idea of going south to north from Jefferson all the way to 8 Mile. I made a little box with a hidden camera, made my pink Cadillac, and pushed all the way from Jefferson to 8 Mile along Woodward, which took almost four hours (including breaks). I ended up cutting down to an hour and 45 minutes, so I have this recording of that time, which is historic because it was the last time the fairgrounds were open. The only sound in that video was from a Lions’ game, there was a guy happened to be playing the alto sax outside.

I really enjoyed that piece and I feel it was a really odd space too, funny how I was connecting this history of the Motor City with me as a kid in Kitwe, Zambia near the copper belt mines making wire cars. It was a connection in a place I never imagined. After doing this I thought it would be so cool to have a whole bunch of people doing this together. I was thinking about the dream cruise and that culture — and just having a crowd walk together too.

“…imagine that first time those cars rolled on that road — imagine those people watching it, thinking ‘what the **** is this?’ Everyone had their horses and donkeys or whatever…”

What triggered me, above reenacting place and time, I started thinking about Woodward and that first assembly line. To imagine that first time those cars rolled on that road — imagine those people watching it, thinking ‘what the **** is this?’ Everyone had their horses and donkeys or whatever their mode of transportation and now there was this [rumbling-clanking automobile sound] weird thing that was totally going to shape their social interaction, their movement. In that moment, the vehicle was a vehicle of creative thought or change, not monetary. That might have triggered a whole cultural phenomenon, globally, of making wire cars that I grew up with.

So the poetics of it was bringing that cultural phenomenon back to the road that possibly created it. Getting those wire car wheels rolling on Woodward Avenue was I felt where the magic existed.

In 2011 I went around for two months with workshops, I had chosen the location which was going to be in front of the DIA, so I had the city close Woodward Avenue on that lane. I was thinking of Diego Rivera, that’s one artist that moved me here, feeling that as a foreigner I still had a voice and also learning that we lived in a land of foreigners. Looking at a 1937 painting revealed a depression, money was horrible, Ford could have collapsed, but Ford decided to hire this artist, was smart enough to know that to keep this industry alive it needed to be an ideology. In the painting there were different ethnic groups working together, which was not a reality, women buying cars, which also was not a reality at that time — it was all about ideals.

Diego painted an image of what ideally he imagined Detroit was, could be. This was when Obama was bailing out the big three. They were struggling to keep the car industry alive in Detroit not because it was making money, it might have made more money outside, but you can’t remove the car industry from Detroit, that’s what we are. There again it was about ideology, it was about nationalistic identity, not about economy.

“…but you can’t remove the car industry from Detroit, that’s what we are. There again it was about ideology, it was about nationalistic identity, not about economy.”

I purposely wanted to go out to different points in Detroit and its vicinity to run workshops to encourage people to participate in this project that similarly to Diego’s mural painting reflected the diverse identity of Detroit. This was a moment of change and excitement where potentially of what it meant to be in the nationalistic identity was not the stereotype perpetuated WASP identity that was around for a very long time.

What was really exciting about all these communities is that it didn’t matter where I went, in reality all those pockets were really energetic. There was already this existing energy. It was more of a platform for people of different locations to finally do something together. I took over a Dalgeish dealership, it was a beautiful opportunity to bring in that narrative again. We taped up the whole floor and numbered the spaces and the day came and we cruised.

Since 2011, there’s been notoriety about it, I think people share a similar audacity of humor. The WAWAD has traveled to different places. I did a workshop once in Kansas, and a year later we did one in Berlin.

Living in all the different places you’ve lived, how has that affected your perception of and perspective on borders and boundaries between countries and people?

I grew up with very distinct borders and being conscious of borders politically and racially, all kind of borders. Borders were something I was very aware of, I came from a historically colonial space. The mirror feeling I had about Detroit was that it made evident that the USA is a post-colonial state, which is something the west has a hard time grasping. People have not really absolved the fact that they are colonized perceptually — which can be racially, politically and all that, too — that we were colonized by Europe, meaning Europeans — actually it’s harder for whites to understand.

“The mirror feeling I had about Detroit was that it made evident that the USA is a post-colonial state, which is something the west has a hard time grasping.”

That’s I think why we are struggling with a lot of stuff right now. I definitely was aware of this externally, but my own identity was so messed up. My first language was Shona, I didn’t speak English until I was 5 years old. My parents had to learn Shona so they could talk to their kids, we were 5 kids. I remember my brothers making fun of English when we were little. Then I moved to Zambia, with school we had to learn Tonga, but everyone spoke Nyanja. Then I went to Kitwe for three years and learned Chibemba, slightly different, but the languages are quite similar because like the Romance languages of Europe they share a root called Bantu of southern-central Africa.

But there were cultural differences too: when I lived in Zambia there were more, but at the time I remember being conscious of 74 different languages, in Zimbabwe there were less. I was definitely aware of languages and perception, how language effected perception, so learning how to shift spaces and trying to be really conscious of perception. I remember always trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes but being aware you can never wear somebody else’s shoes. It’s that living between those two spaces where it’s not trying to understand assuming that you would understand, but trying to understand knowing you are hoping to attempt to, keeping that open space.

“I remember always trying to put myself in the other person’s shoes but being aware you can never wear somebody else’s shoes.”

I have no idea if I was successful, I realize I sound as if I knew what I was doing, but it was more about listening — I grew up that way. As much as it was very physical there, I always stood on the outside. I was known to be the boy from America — I didn’t know what America was — they would say ‘Ah, you are from America, USA.’, especially people who didn’t know me. I spoke Shona so… I didn’t have any white friends until I came here when I was 17, so it’s not like I was in this different grouping, but there was this awareness that my parents were from this other place like most immigrants, suddenly people assume you become a representative of something you don’t know.

I’ve lived in a space of transience, belonging/not belonging, my identity was always grey. I think it’s not to my attitude, Detroit especially — where I’ve moved around a lot, ‘let me feel how it is to belong to a space’, but it’s also because I’m not alone. Just a few days ago I was fixing my brakes at Jos. Campau at the mechanic on Carpenter, there’s a gentleman from Iraq — he was feeling in that space, in a place where felt that he could finally belong — because he didn’t have to live in this imposed space of assimilation, but the idea that you have to become something, this is a place where you can invent yourself — you can have a heavy accent and that’s ok.

“…this is a place where you can invent yourself — you can have a heavy accent and that’s ok.”

I’m very aware of the colonial and political context of borders that are not really real, a lot of them are fabricated, alien to physical realities. In Hamtramck we know that Holbrook was an actual brook, so that’s a physical structure that defines spaces. Zimbabwe is divided by the Limpopo river and the Zambezi river, so there are some physical things that define ourselves separately from each other, but the awareness is that there’s actually a fine line where the other side is just a mirror of the other side.

I think it’s very important to highlight borders, because they area places that define where the capital letter or full stop is in a sentence. These points of breath and separation, where in reality it doesn’t have to be — it’s us that are building it. When we highlight and gaze on it, we are able to investigate ourselves and how we interpret and are able to look at the other. Just to let you know I’m turned on by Mexico, Mexicantown in southwest and Canada —that’s a beautiful border.

“I think it’s very important to highlight borders, because they area places that define where the capital letter or full stop is in a sentence.”

Growing up with embassies and things that really structurally made it apparent where those lines were, I’ve always hated those lines, even though I’m fascinated by it, because they are all fabricated and we live in that system, we are born and we die in those systems. Coming here, I went through my own cultural shocks, but my first year in the USA was in the Appalachian mountains of Georgia in a private 2-year college, I was the only foreigner in the class (of about 500 students). That was so healthy for me, because if I had gone to an urban space I would have hung out with other foreigners, but I had to interact with predominantly European-Americans in Georgia.

I was introduced to Pink Floyd and al these other nuanced identities, but these others, which in the mirror was the self, but psychologically was the other suddenly helped it become the self. I was able to embrace the similarities that this culture that I judged in the power-structure was actually similar to my friends who also grew up in a very isolated space. It was very healthy.

I feel there’s such an urgency to address language and the cultural perception that exists through language because I think that’s one of the biggest problems: dialogue or how one enters dialogue.

There’s an African theorist Manthia Diawara who talked about Mudimbe’s writing of a book titled “Getting rid of my father’s stench” in reference to French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault, in an academic space was able to break down stuff so simply that its a discourse about relationships. For Manthia Diawara, to point out the fact that what was revealed in Mudimbe’s writing was ‘how can we even enter a discourse, because your discourse is structured with the Greek and Roman context of narrative’.

The neighborhood you live in is on a border. Do you have any stories about your neighborhood and how you’ve had an interaction between this side and that side?

There’s definitely systems — the small things like police showing up, on the other side of Carpenter, because it’s a smaller municipality, the trash gets picked up more quickly. They seem to be more accessible systems, whereas being in Detroit in an area that’s hidden from the spotlighted part of Detroit, there’s rarely any infrastructure that comes — you have to remind the trash people to come collect.

“I think the border is in more flux, it could be who are your three/four neighbors, how do you react to the community, who is us and who is them?”

As I said before borders highlight what the ideal is, but they don’t show where the real border exists. I think the border is in more flux, it could be who are your three/four neighbors, how do you react to the community, who is us and who is them? Hamtramck used to be larger, it went all the way up to 8 mile. It’s shifted and changed, so it’s not consistent. I think that’s a reflection itself. I think feeling belonging maybe. I’m not so sure, I don’t think I can define a difference between the sides of the border.

“Actually I desire less of that, that’s not what triggers my thoughts, it’s more retrospectively and critically looking back from above in, but in terms of what shifts me and drives me everyday is actually further blurring and breaking those borders in all the projects that I do.”

Actually I desire less of that, that’s not what triggers my thoughts, it’s more retrospectively and critically looking back from above in, but in terms of what shifts me and drives me everyday is actually further blurring and breaking those borders in all the projects that I do. I’m more interested in this kind of global, I’m embracing a regionalism in my work now and really addressing so it’s kind of fresh and real, if you notice a lot of my work that I dress in regionalism is actually parallel in conversing a global context. The region, the local and the global exist almost parallel in the same sentence. I’m actually not as interested in that, but I’m very aware this is important politically, I love the hybrid. I wish we could discuss hybridity and have that be the focal dialogue, but unfortunately we have to talk, conscious of that, of the power, the inequality and the border and the separation of those. I guess that’s a political translation.

Thinking back to what you mentioned in terms of your home and the Zimbabwean cultural center, how does this help in blurring the borders between Detroit and Zimbabwe?

The wire car project actually, I’ve kept it kind of separate. The Zimbabwean cultural center is really odd, it’s something that I started, but it exists through collaborations. Definitely not like a director, in some parts there are multiple directors, so it’s a different kind of collaboration, not like a participatory, like composing a larger orchestra… This one is almost like an F modica firestarter. It’s triggered from the idea of shifting those prior relationships by subverting a larger institution into a very personal intimate house, which just happened to be in Hamtramck, close to Detroit in the proximity of its borders, too. But it’s mostly premised in blurring that by having a mirrored house in another location and separating the idea of something large and institutional as something intimate, so being intimate does come to the individual.

Chido Johnson outside the WAWADNow it’s actually shifted from a center to something that’s de-centering it. I got a Knights Foundation grant to bring artists here and vice versa there, but instead of turning this into a residency, I’d rather work with existing communities here. For example Popps Packing, we have an agreement where visual artists will come and stay there, that way artists don’t come here into this space, but to make sure they go out into the communities. A lot of my collaborators are constantly shifting, so this exists more as an archive of that thing that keeps shifting.

Going to its function, the premise is to act as a consulate, it’s where to instigate cultural exchange. It’s about having artists from Zimbabwe and Detroit to interact, collaborate, partner or do something. That’s been happening for almost two years with some really exciting projects. Those projects actually highlight the mirrored [quality] of it, what seems more similar than different. It’s again, the idea of looking at the border, just to talk about it, in such a way to make awareness of it in its fabrication but reveal that it doesn’t really exist — we can peel off the curtain if we want to.

Growing up in Zambia, there was a nightclub in the capital city Lusaka called Studio 22. I remember late at night on the weekends there was a TV show that showed what was happening at the nightclub — it was like a Soul Train. This was late 70’s actually — I grew up with the Temptations, Chocolate, the Commodores, Diana Ross, we had those records and we would have house parties. But I grew up with traditional dances like Chikokoshi, which was shaking your booty down to the ground, booty shaking on the ground was about giving birth, not as sexy as we define it now.

“So coming here was not to see — Motown lived and was very alive in Kitwe, Zambia. It was our cultural identity. In that case it’s an example of how the cultural, the realness has no borders.”

But the idea that we had the traditional, which we were aware was our cultural roots, but we all danced to this music: that was ours, we owned Michael Jackson — no matter where you go they will say the same thing. So coming here was not to see — Motown lived and was very alive in Kitwe, Zambia. It was our cultural identity. In that case it’s an example of how the cultural, the realness has no borders. In high school I was in a breakdance crew, we watched Breakin’ 1, Breakin’ 2, Beat Street, we were all into that world — we grew up with that. We might have not enjoyed the Roman empire and the politic identity of this whole structure in terms of that time Bush and Reagan, but we connected to the cultural identity. That’s what I mean about those physical boundary spaces that don’t reflect actuality.