Exploring Identity (Grades 9–12)

Inspired by Rashid Johnson’s Falling Man, 2015


Rashid Johnson, born in Chicago in 1977, lives and works in New York and is recognized as one of the major voices of his generation. He composes searing meditations on race and class using a variety of artistic traditions. His early studies were in photography and conceptual art, but he is equally interested in other mediums and testing the ability of abstract visual languages to communicate across cultural boundaries. He now works across media using video, sculpture, painting, and installation to address issues of African-American identity and history.

Rashid Johnson addresses themes of identity, anxiety, and escape across various mediums. In each of the assemblages in the artist’s Falling Man series, including the work below, the shape of an upside-down man appears in ceramic or mirrored tiles. In form, they recall the pixilated characters from vintage video games falling into the void after virtually “dying” or failing to complete a level, or the chalk outlines of real-world bodies left at crime scenes. In this work, the figure is surrounded by tiles marred by spider-web cracks that suggest bullet holes as well as abstract splatters of black soap and spray paint, all alluding to the aftermath of a violent event.

Johnson often includes autobiographical references in much of his work. Falling Man, 2015, for example, includes a star-shaped cutout that frames a photograph of Johnson’s father taken around the time of the artist’s birth. The collection of books and a radio that can be seen in the background of the photograph are frequently recurring objects for the artist and appear in several of his sculptural and installation works.

Rashid Johnson (American, born 1977). Falling Man, 2015. Mirrored tile, white ceramic tile, spray enamel, vinyl, black soap, and wax, 96 5/8 x 72 7/8 x 1 7/8 inches (245.4 x 185.1 x 4.8 cm). Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Bequest of Arthur B. Michael, by exchange, 2016 (2016:31). © 2015 Rashid Johnson


  • Drawing paper
  • Pencil or pen
  • Photographs (or magazines)
  • Scissors
  • Glue
  • Yoga mat or sturdy blanket
  • Colored pencils or markers (optional)


Identity in art: the way an artist perceives or expresses themselves within their artwork, often by questioning, exploring, and expressing

Discussion and Video

Begin by using the Teaching Tips and Tools for Discussion or ask your students to self-guide themselves using the Tools for Looking at an Artwork. An example of how to bring in information about the artist from something your student observes: They may notice that the cracks in the glass look similar to how bullet holes may look. You can share that the artist is bringing notions of violence against the African-American community into his artwork. You might want to ask your students how that makes them feel and why they think the artist thought it was important to add that element to his work.

Next, watch the following video:

Begin a discussion with your students by asking the following questions:

  • Johnson mentioned that he was using movement as a way to de-stress. What are your ways of releasing stress? Have you tried using movement? Was that a successful method? Why or why not?
  • Do you think there is a connection between physical movement and visual art? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think it is important to Johnson to use actual objects in his works instead of just re-creating them through drawing or painting?


In the video above, Johnson mentioned how he included a rug in one of his installations so that the viewer could imagine themselves moving with the video. Explain to your students that they are going to take time to do some movement before they begin creating an artwork.

Ask your students to lay out a yoga mat or a blanket in an area where they have room to move. Lead your students in a movement exercise including poses that are high and low, as well as slow and fast, then ask them to jump to mimic the movement that inspired Johnson for his New Black Yoga video piece. (If you would prefer for your students to watch a video, look for one that includes yoga, tai chi, dance, etc.)

After they have finished a few minutes of movement, have them sit quietly and take a few deep breaths. Ask them to think of an object that represents them and to take a few moments to concentrate on that object.


Overview: In this project, students will explore how to express their identity through multiple ways of artmaking, taking inspiration from Rashid Johnson’s Falling Man, 2015.

  • First, ask your students to write down the object that they thought of during their movement exercise and then write a brief description of why. Students should then draw that object on a sheet of paper. Encourage them to use shading and texture to give the object three-dimensionality.
  • Next, ask them to find a photograph (or cut a picture from a magazine) of a place, a person, or an object that represents them. Rashid Johnson added a photograph of his father, which was taken around the time of Johnson’s birth, and then made it into a star for his work. Encourage your students to cut their image into a shape and glue it to their drawing.
  • Lastly, ask them to add some additional lines and shapes to fill in the page. Bring them back to how they felt during the movement exercise. Perhaps they can do a repeating pattern, or multiple lines that curve, or some other type of design that represents them. Ask them to think about things that they find meaningful, such as sports, music, crafting, video gaming, etc.
  • They can add color, but it is not necessary for this project.

A teacher's example project for the artmaking activity

Artist’s Statement

Once students have completed their drawing, ask them to write a short artist’s statement using the paragraph that they wrote in the beginning of the artmaking activity as inspiration. They should write a few sentences that describe their work and how it ties into their identity. Here are some guidelines to share with your students:

  1. Introduce your artwork. Give your basic idea in a sentence or two.
  2. Next, go more in-depth (give further detail) about how your idea is presented in your artwork. Maybe give the reason why you created the work and what techniques you used to create the piece.
  3. Lastly, you may choose to include the inspiration for your work, how it fits into your current portfolio of work, and restate your basic idea(s).

Further Exploration

At this time, you can share other artists that explore their identity in their artwork:



  • How did going through movement exercises before the artmaking activity make you feel? Is it something you would want to do again in the future? Why or why not?
  • Is making art about your identity a good approach to making a successful work of art?
  • If you created an installation around this work of art, what other objects or artworks would you include (think videos, places to sit or move, etc.)?

Optional: Share a photo or video of your artwork on Twitter or Instagram with #BuffaloAKG and #MuseumFromHome!

Additional Resources