Let Rashid Johnson Tell You About Shea Butter Yellow
As part of our recurring Color Code feature, the artist details the particular emotionality of his favorite hue.
Using shea butter and cinder blocks, Rashid Johnson reinvents Allan Kaprow's 1970 work Sweet Wall as Shea Wall for the FIAC Hors Les Murs program in Paris on October 21, 2015. Photo by Emilie Pillot. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
I was born in the ’70s, and when you think of the ’70s, you think about yellows and browns—it’s an interesting palette for that time. Shea butter in particular is a material that has had a big impact on my life, since an early age—from applying it to my body, and my mother’s interest in it.
I started questioning it by the time I was 16, 17, like, “What is this?” It’s a West African material—it comes from a nut called the shea nut. The way that it actually becomes yellow is that it’s combined with palm oil, which brings out that yellow [hue]. I started thinking about its travels and its density and its narrative: going from West Africa, taking the transatlantic journey to the Americas, not dissimilar to the journey that so many African people made.
How the material functions is interesting and complicated: It’s got healing power; it’s also something that people use in cooking and for moisturizing. It’s become really pervasive in the Western world, used in moisturizers and as part of anti-aging.
I’m deeply interested and invested in the fact that there is no expiration date for this material, both conceptually and physically. It’s a material that I’ve thought of as being akin to how another artist, Joseph Beuys, used fat. Some things don’t end, and they’re always applicable and they always have utility.
It’s a spiritual material, and in that sense, the color becomes spiritual. It’s something that is applied to one’s body; it’s something that can speak to healing and spirit and travel. I mean, for me, when you say, “What’s a color that you think is impactful?”—in my life, it’s that yellow.
But, of course, that same yellow could be described as mustard yellow by someone else. It’s a very specific concept to see that yellow and have your instincts tell you that it’s a shea butter yellow. There are many people in the world who would not see it that way. They would see that yellow and describe it differently. It’s an authoring opportunity for me to describe how I see the world in a very specific perspective.