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Leasho Johnson, Fears and tears, swear words and gulps, 2022

Leasho Johnson, Fears and tears, swear words and gulps, 2022

Rianna Jade Parker: Tell me about your first New York solo exhibition, The Love of Men and the Fear of Stones, an intimate show of six paintings at Harper’s in Chelsea.

Leasho Johnson: I first came to New York in 2016, when I spent three months here as part of the Residency Unlimited programme. At the time, I was trying to plot a way to get my work into a New York gallery, so this show felt like a culmination of all these years of working as an artist—an opportunity for me to come full circle. Harper’s is a wonderful space and a lot of Jamaican folks who are operating in New York came through for the opening, which was nice.

In a lot of ways, I owe this show to the artist Eddie Martinez. He did studio visits with me when I was in New York, and he really loved my work. I’m grateful for that relationship and I’m hoping it will evolve into something bigger in the future.

RJP The title of your exhibition comes from a stanza in the poem ‘Broken II’ [2007] by the Jamaican writer Kei Miller. Can you speak to Miller’s influence on your work as a queer Black artist?

LJ For me, Miller is just another character or element in my paintings – part of the background, so to speak. He’s thinking about his queerness and his Jamaican-ness within the same kind of framework as I am, and he’s found so many different ways to put that into words.

RJP You completed an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020. How did that experience influence your current practice?

LJ Before I came to painting, I originally trained in visual communications and worked as a graphic designer. So, when I started on the graduate programme at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the first assignment I set myself was to see whether I could make good paintings. Initially, I felt like a fish out of water because I had no understanding of the lingo behind painting—the histories, the materiality, all that stuff. I also started to question why figuration was, and still is, considered the apex of Black art. Why was the school tending to reward representation among its Black students? There were very few Black conceptualists, particularly from the Caribbean, so it seemed to me there was a bias for measuring Black excellence in terms of the physical labour of the Black body reproducing images of the Black body on canvas.

So, I had a mini-crisis. I literally was upset with everything. I would see these ugly figurative paintings and think: ‘How is this art?’ I just didn’t get it. It was only when the school’s dean, the artist Arnold Kemp, recommended that I read Michael Taussig's What Color Is the Sacred? (2009) that things started to fall into place, and I began to see how everything that things started to fall into place, and I began to see how everything—ncluding the production of colour—has come from the physical labour of those in the global south.

RJP Your work has a predominantly dark palette interspersed with wonderful bursts of vibrant colour. What’s the logic behind these choices?

LJ I would describe my palette in this way: I want all the colours to be able to merge into black. I think about Blackness as a substance. In terms of space—in terms of being—blackness can be seen as a void. But it’s a void full of potential: there are so many possibilities within that universe. It’s all about a feeling, a mood. I do repeat my colours, drawing from that same limited palette, but then I reconfigure them to get different results.

RJP I wanted to ask you about a particular work in the show, Paradise has its price (Anansi #20) (2022), which references a character from West African mythology.

LJ It’s difficult to make out through the layers of paint, but this work features three figures interacting in a landscape. The one on the bed is inspired by Anansi, a spider character from Akan folklore. Primarily, the work relates to how queerness survives in a country like Jamaica. However, it’s also a reflection on where I am right now in my own life – in terms of both the isolation that comes from being a single queer person living in the US and the perspective I’ve gained, having emigrated from a Black country, to realize that most of us struggle with loving ourselves because we haven’t ever had the chance to. 

For me, it’s a morbidity that extends beyond the effects of colonialism. So, the work is not only a reflection on growing up queer in Jamaica and having to navigate identity but, ultimately, on trying to navigate love and self-love, too.

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