NEW YORK—Taking center stage at the Venice Biennale, an international exhibition likened to the Olympics of the art world, renowned sculptor M. Scott Johnson, BS ‘00, is at the pinnacle of his craft. His installation—a triptych of African American folklore hero High John the Conqueror—was part of an exhibit from Galerie Myrtis, the first Black-owned gallery invited to present in the 127-year history of the event.
“It’s an honor,” he says. “I’ve been at this for many years, but things just started opening up. And part of that opening up process is remembering how it happened.”
Johnson began carving his path as an artist decades ago, using Western as a grindstone to sharpen his focus and find inspiration. He first came to the University in 1986 as a “kid from Inkster,” Michigan, unsure of what he wanted to study but excited to explore and follow in the footsteps of several family members who graduated from Western.
As a member of WMU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Scholars Academy, Johnson was immediately connected with a support network to foster his holistic journey as a student—from academic coaching to cultural and wellness education. He also began taking courses in disciplines across campus including anthropology, history, geography and geology. Then, it seems, fate took hold.
“Talk about the stars aligning; I had a professor named Dr. Warren Perry. He was one of the foremost African American archaeologists and anthropologists in the country at that time and was doing the (most incredible) digs all over. And somehow, he ended up at Western the exact same time as me,” he says.
“During that time, I had (classes with) him as much as I could, and he shaped me profoundly. He was the person who opened up my door to start to break out of a lot of my Midwesternisms about the way I look at culture, the way I look at gender relations. And he critiqued my writing—like, severely—and I appreciated him for that.”
Johnson’s experiences with world-class faculty initiated a career trajectory he could never have imagined. Dr. Bruce Haight, professor emeritus of history, opened his eyes to the beauty and power of African sculpture.
“He was responsible for bringing (renowned Nigerian sculptor) Lamidi Fakeye here to the United States, and he would do live carvings on campus. That’s how I first saw sculpture live, and it was mind-blowing,” says Johnson.
A semester shy of graduating, Johnson decided to follow that passion to New York where an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother connected him with an organization called Operation Crossroads Africa, a nonprofit that sponsors cross-cultural exchanges.
“I got to Africa in 1994, right on the heels of Nelson Mandela getting elected and apartheid being struck down,” he remembers. “From there I traveled to Zimbabwe, which at the time was producing some of the most renowned and profound artwork coming out of contemporary Africa.”
Johnson was mesmerized by the leagues of master sculptors carving in the open air outside the city’s capitol. He began exploring the craft with local artists and in 1996 landed an apprenticeship with Nicholas Mukomberanwa, an internationally recognized artist considered a national hero in Zimbabwe.
“In Zimbabwe, I learned how to communicate with the spirit of the rock as well as the surface of the rock,” he says, recalling the first two months of his apprenticeship spent sharpening tools every morning before earning the chance to begin carving. “(My mentors) taught me that everything has a spirit, and it made me aware of my world in a different, sophisticated way.”
Johnson returned to the United States with a renewed passion for his work and awareness of his African roots and African American identity, which he infused into his art.
“Western gave me an intellectual background … but Africa gave me an aesthetic background,” he says, having completed his final credits to become an official Western alumnus in 2000.
“My work is a fusion of both of these.”
While creating pieces of his own, he found an outlet to influence the next generation of artists through a residency at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York, where he’s stayed for 20 years. His Western roots have also impacted his artistic success. Dr. William Pickard, BS ‘64, an Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, helped Johnson’s art career find a rebirth at the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit after meeting at a reunion on campus in 2012.
“I had just published a book about my work … and gave it to him to read, and he fell in love with what I do and what I stand for and the work that I’ve made,” Johnson says of Pickard, who is now a collector of his art. “He’s been a huge supporter of Western as well as a supporter of me.”
Johnson was back on campus during Homecoming 2022 to receive the Alumni Achievement Award from the Institute for Intercultural and Anthropological Studies. Just a month earlier, he had his first piece auctioned off by Christie’s alongside five fellow artists of African descent from the Galerie Myrtis Afrofuturist Manifesto. It’s a space many contemporary artists don’t often find themselves in.
“I looked into the room and my work was next to Picasso’s and Basquiat’s—at that level,” he says.
Now, as he forges new paths in the art world, he’s ready to pass on his lessons in success to the next generation.
“I’ve always had a connection with the community, but I think a different sort of giving back is essential at this stage in my life,” he says. “It’s something I feel blessed to be able to do.” ■