“I am here because I want to ‘live’ in Jamaica”: An Interview with Leasho Johnson
Born in Jamaica and now practicing art in Chicago, recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago M.F.A. graduate Leasho Johnson sat down with Jan Christian Bernabe, the director of FLXST Contemporary, to chat about his debut solo show in Chicago, Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars, that opened in September 2020.
Let’s jump right into your recent solo show at FLXST Contemporary. The show’s title Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars refers to Dr. Martin Luther King’s last speech before his assassination in 1968. Describe why you chose the title and how it relates to your current body of work that you presented in your solo show?
I thought of it fitting for the show because of who I had in mind. When I created the work presented in the exhibition at FLXST, it was during the COVID-19 quarantine in May. I had relocated my studio from my SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago] campus studio to my living room, which I shared with my housemate. The Black Lives Matter demonstrations were in high swing, and I could sense the frustration and tension everywhere. By then, COVID-19 took over two hundred thousand people’s lives — it felt like a dark time for the United States. Caribbean folks are always aware of the circumstances of racial inequality. As a Jamaican, I feel like we have a front-row seat to racial tensions in America and all corners of the earth. But my proximity to the racial flames in Chicago brought me to a whole other level of experience. This show is a reminder for myself and those who are currently facing a sense of hopelessness that America has had dark times in its past that continue to haunt us today. While at the same time, America, for so many people like myself, is a source and origin of many minds and voices like Dr. Martin Luthor King. The “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech that Dr. Martin Luthor King gave at the nation’s capital was a beacon during the Civil Rights Movement, which I would say is also reflected in this time. The dream lives on through us. Living today, here and now, as a witness and a benefactor of American education, I wanted a title that would contribute, in some way, to the ongoing dialogue about race and remind us about how far we have come and how much further we can go.
Would you say the paintings are primarily portraits? There is a way that portraits function to represent and tell viewers something about the person on the canvas. Yet, in your paintings, that sense of figurative realism is abstracted intentionally. Describe who the bodies in your paintings represent and about your decision to obscure their identities? (Now that I’ve asked that question, I wonder whether you are really concealing their identities?)
The bodies in the paintings represent the interiorities of black people, some queer, and some not. Yet, they are a part of a larger black queer narrative. They could be an apparition of time or an encounter, a memory, a source of anxiety, a lover, or an unresolved source of pain. They are characterizations of sorts. Usually, portraits greet your gaze as they stare back at you, but I deliberately diminished their ability to do that. I used the silhouette to pull back from pure abstraction to lure viewers into recognizing the figure. What viewers are left with is a projection, something more personal. Abstraction helps to describe feelings, and this I utilized for the creation of these portraits. I wanted them to escape recognizability because, as a black queer person, I feel society forces us to be describable, transparent, or stereotyped in order to make nonwhite or straight people feel comfortable. My work is anti-homogeneous. Thus, they can escape societal expectations.
Your show is composed of four large canvases and ten smaller canvases. Three of your larger paintings frame a silhouette of minimally painted bodies with colors on top of the black paint. These three paintings are unlike the others in that they feel somehow more minimal, yet the lines and contours of the bodies convey a sensibility that can be read as unmanly or even queer (the soft lines and curves give this impression). Do race, gender, and sexuality play into these three portraits, and if so, how? Are these issues also found in the other works in your show?
Let me correct you: they contain no black paint. The black is charcoal created by adding layer by layer of different charcoal grades on top of its color. I then sealed it with a charcoal fixative. I apply the black charcoal in a way where it’s hard to tell the difference between the painted material and the drawn ones. But yes, race, gender, sexuality are in these pieces; these issues have been my primary concerns when thinking about how I navigate society. “How do these “selves” form?” I wonder. They are like self-portraits. I reflect on my journey from Jamaica, thinking about navigating masculinity and identity, especially thinking about Dancehall culture and the body’s language, which becomes coded by gender. I think about the performance of gender in Dancehall venues (publicly) and how gender is performed in private.
The African American artist Kara Walker is known for her use of silhouette cutouts to locate and represent people of African descent in the history of the United States. Your use of the silhouette presumes references to her work, but your work also does something more than Walkers’ cutouts. The black bodies aren’t just silhouettes in your work. It’s like your paintings begin with the black body, but you start adding colors and layers on top or inside the black areas. First of all, did Kara Walker influence you? Viewers can see the layers you’ve created on the surface of your paintings. How are you thinking about the black body as you are composing your portraits? In a lot of ways, they are anti-Walker-esque in their intentional compositional complexities. Your thoughts?
People have indeed compared my work to Kara’s work on more than one occasion. Intentionally, I’m not looking at her art. I think we both look at and try to confront or dismantle how history represents black people. The use of silhouettes activates perceptions around blackness. They also act as a kind of simplification that comes from caricature. I hope that the color elements and the silhouette contradict each other in their meaning through their perception — one element wants to be free, and the other contains them. If the silhouette represents boundaries to understand my existence, I think the inside expresses something invisible, or the interiority that’s confined by perceptions.
You are from Jamaica and identity as a gay man. How is your work received in Jamaica and throughout the Jamaican diaspora? Are there artists or non-artists who have helped you grapple with identity issues in your artwork? How do you feel about the recent protests about racism and art institutions’ attempts to be more inclusive of artists of color?
Well, for one, I wouldn’t openly state that I am gay in Jamaica. The repercussions wouldn’t be in my favor. I would say that my work so far, before and after coming to Chicago, has been well received in Jamaica. Before, my practice was about the inception of Jamaican identity. But I excluded, to some degree, the personal aspects of why I was creating the work. Of course, back then, I wouldn’t have stated that I am gay publicly. I didn’t want to feel forced to contend with that aspect of my life, mainly because I thought it would distract me from the work. I needed to dismantle many of the post-colonial conditions that I felt my art dealt with, especially around the politics of gender and masculinity. By doing so, it would open up space for my self-discovery. Being “out” in Jamaica would not give me the distance that I needed to challenge and dismantle certain cultures that I grew up with, like Dancehall culture. I have found myself in a very contradictory place that many people in Jamaica experience: like loving certain types of music even though it endorses homophobia and embraces toxic masculinity. While on the other hand, people celebrate music as a form of resistance and power, an evolved form of African culture and spirituality through sound waves and performance — a celebration of fertility and women’s empowerment. To find inspiration, I had to look outside of my own culture, which became a coping mechanism in a small space, physically, and psychologically. It took me a while to accept and embrace the possibility of becoming something worthy of being seen and acknowledged because of how small and invisible I felt growing up. I have just started to confront and push against these obstacles visibly since coming to Chicago. There are many creatives that I have come to be inspired by for different reasons because of the work they do or because they are truly a beacon for what’s possible for me.
Ebony G. Patterson inspires me. Because of her journey, I believe that the type of work that I do is possible professionally. I like Francis Bacon because of how personal he is to his work. It is the same reason that Nathaniel Mary Quinn’s work inspires me. I’m especially moved by the work of Theaster Gates, mainly because of his all-encompassing scale; he uses the artifacts of his community to create his art. As it relates to issues of identity, I think about Grace Jones. I was a child at the height of her career, and I am always in awe of how unfiltered and unbounded she was as a black woman in all her creative endeavors. She may not be conventionally queer, but her work has challenged many aspects of black identity. I find strength in many female figures, and I think Jamaicans should honor Grace.
Finally, how has your move to Chicago to complete your M.F.A. at SAIC affected your art practice? Will you return to Jamaica? Have you given any thoughts to where you’d like your art practice to be in the future?
Coming to Chicago has opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me. I realized that many restrictions have been imposed on myself, both geographically and personally, which inadvertently affected my work. There is a lot to be thankful for but making that decision to pursue my M.F.A. was probably the most significant and most important decision that I’ve made so far. Thank you, SAIC and Chicago!
Now, I want to expand on the world that I’ve started to create. I’m not sure where this will take me. I can only envision what it may look like. The world is vast, and I’m unsure where I will be, say in a year, or where I’ll end up in the next ten years, and that’s just as exciting as where I am now.
Will I return to Jamaica? I’ve asked myself that question over and over. I have to admit that I feel that I’m still in Jamaica. I know physically I’m here in Chicago, and every day, this place pulls more of my presence into it. Maybe, I’m thinking this way because I love living on that island, but I am here because I want to live in Jamaica. That may make less sense to my peers from the States and other developed countries, but my colleagues from the islands chasing their dreams know what I mean. And that’s my definite answer to that question.
Leasho Johnson (b. 1984) is a visual artist working in paintings, collage, sculpture, street art, and digital medium. He was born in Montego-Bay but raised in Sheffield, a small town on the outskirts of Negril, Jamaica. Johnson uses his experience growing up black, queer, and male to explore concepts around forming identity and the postcolonial condition. Johnson is inspired by Jamaican Dancehall street culture, psychological interiorities, gender politics, Caribbean mythology, and trauma. He uses cartooning as a mode of abstraction to blur the distinction of stereotype and representation, geography and memory, and to reveal or hide western contentions with the black body.
Working in a multiplicity of mediums, Leasho immortalizes the dynamic energy of the Dancehall and engages with black stereotypes and spectrums as expressed in Jamaican/Caribbean cultural practice. His characters often merged specific materials with new narratives around gender and identity whilst utilizing both traditional and contemporary approaches around ancestral and personal stories. His interest sometimes comes from reinterpreting/interrupting the historical imagery of the British Empire with contemporary realities. His work centers on the contestations and tensions in Western culture around sexuality and seeks to explore contemporary meanings in context to historical truths.
Leasho Johnson is a recipient of the New Artist Society Scholarship from the School of Art Institute Chicago (SAIC) in 2018. Leasho has shown his work locally in Jamaica at several National Gallery of Jamaica exhibitions, Young Talent, 2010; Jamaica Biennial 2012, 2014, and 2017, We Have Met Before, 2017, and New Local Space (NLS) Belisario and the Soundboy, 2016. Internationally Leasho has exhibited in Resisting Paradise, Puerto Rico, Montreal, 2019, Jamaican Pulse: Art and Politics from Jamaica and the Diaspora, Bristol, UK, 2016, Jamaican Routes, Oslo, Norway, 2016, Jamaica Jamaica, Philharmonie, Paris and Brazil, 2017 and 2018. Caribbean Queer Visualities, Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, Ireland, 2016, Of Skin and Sand, National Gallery of Bahamas, 2017, and Third Horizon Film Festival, Miami 2017.
FLXST Contemporary is a contemporary fine arts and photography gallery and an arts incubator in Chicago. It showcases highly-evocative and uncompromising artwork by emerging and mid-career artists; and it supports the creation and exhibition of new artwork across visual mediums. FLXST Contemporary works with and represents mainly diasporic, immigrant artists, LGBTQ-identified artists, and artists of color based in Chicago and in other parts of the country.
FLXST Contemporary exhibited Leasho Johnson’s solo show Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars from September 19 to October 25, 2020. It was his first solo show in Chicago.