A One On One With Leasho Johnson

Is it possible to address your past – the good or the bad – to an audience, without tearing yourself apart at the seams? How do you carry the scars of a violent history laid upon you? What’s more, do you continue to create in pain, or do you try to heal? Is the process creative, cathartic, or calamitous? These are questions reflected through the lenses of postcolonial history, gender identity, sexuality and race, laid out in resplendent, vivid gesture by artist Leasho Johnson. His early experience in visual communication and graphic design transmuted into his widely-known practice as a contemporary painter. He was born in 1984 in Kingston, Jamaica. He earned his BFA in Visual Communication from the Edna Manley College of Visual and Performing Arts (Kingston) in 2009, and an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2020. He was the recipient of the 2020-21 Leslie Lohman Fellowship and the Jamaica Art Society Fellowship in 2021-22. His work has been shown at group exhibitions in London, New York, São Paulo, Chicago, Ontario, Miami, Belfast and Paris. Johnson’s work is represented in the permanent collections of the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Jamaica (Kingston).

Leasho Johnson
Photo Credit: TERN Gallery (Bahamas)


Your earliest education was in Chicago at the School of the Arts Institute. Is that right?

What do you mean by the earliest?

I meant your formative education in the arts. I believe you studied at SAIC (School of Art Institute Chicago), correct?

I did, but that’s my second degree. My first degree was in Jamaica at the Edna Manley College. It was a first degree in visual communication. I was a designer for a little while.

You have experience with visual communication and graphics. Talk me through the beginning.

So, the truth is I’ve always been a painter. I graduated high school at 15. I wanted to do art school right after, but I was too young, so admissions didn’t start. I couldn’t get into admissions, so my dad kept me at home for three years, and he wouldn’t make me do anything else but paint. He trained me to be a painter, for a while. My challenge was that I didn’t see it as a future for myself. I didn’t see it as a career because there were no examples back home to say, “Oh, this is how you function in society as an artist.” There were no examples. I was kind of baffled in terms of trying to figure out what I could use my talents for. The first job I really had as an artist, or designer, was doing interiors at a hotel. I used that money to finance some of my schooling. I decided to go into graphic designing because while I didn’t know how to use a computer, I just thought it was more feasible, financially. Then, later on, I realised [that] if I wanted to create something new – or create something other than what I was seeing in the environment – I would have to put myself in a position where I could invest in that. During those years, when I graduated in 2009, I was doing both graphic designing and painting at the same time.

I was just trying to develop a language to engage a space that I thought was ignorant in a lot of topics or issues that art could talk about, but just wasn’t. The artists, my colleagues at the time, just didn’t seem to be interested in those harder topics. At the same time – you’d be surprised – but a lot of the things that they’re talking about now, they weren’t back in the day, especially in the Caribbean. So, topics on aesthetics: why is it that we always tend to recreate the picturesque? My dad is definitely from that generation where it was the invention of creating touristic aesthetics. It’s kind of attractive to an outside audience. I critiqued that for a while, especially growing up with him and trying to figure things out. [My] colleagues were having this conversation in contemporary art; it seemed to be the the language, the vessel, that art could actually have these harder conversations with. They were never an easy sell. My first degree at Edna Manley was probably the most important, because while I was studying graphic designing, I was also studying fashion. I would also spend time in painting, listening to critiques and stuff like that. I get so many ideas from how dad taught me. We are all around us. We don’t really have a division between how you would manipulate a three-dimensional space and a two-dimensional space.

Leasho Johnson
The Shrinking World (Anansi #25) (2023)
Charcoal, distemper, watercolors, acrylic, oil, oil stick, Indigo dye, oil, logwood dye, coffee, and gesso on paper mounted on canvas
67.5 x 156 x 2 inches
Commissioned by The Leslie Lohman Museum (New York)
Courtesy of the artist


How did the dialogue change once you made that switch?

I spent at least nine years developing what I had been developing, and then I hit a ceiling. I couldn’t develop the kind of language that would transcend the island – out of the work that I had been creating – [to] engage a local intelligence. I needed to find a way to break out. When I got the opportunity, it had the opposite effect where I no longer could pull on these nuances that were sensitive. I couldn’t see my audience. I didn’t understand my audience. I had to rethink, and reconfigure some of the approaches that I had. In a way, I got back to painting. I would definitely say before, it was more conceptual. I would create in a medium that was specific to the message that I wanted to say. I wasn’t very fixed on painting. I would do yeast pastes, digital art, collages. I would do some paintings, but I’m not creating a series of paintings. As a “Painter” (in capitals), I thought this was the best way to deliver that message. It was more conceptual in that way. Now, I started to look into how materials are connected to where I’m from, my own body, and the histories that are tied up in those materials. That’s where I found myself now, but it’s simply because I have a lot more distance. There’s also less at stake. One of the things I wanted to talk about back home was the inherited identity of homophobia. I am kind of exaggerating because in a way, as an outside person looking in, you would definitely say Jamaica is probably more homophobic than other places. But it’s a place that doesn’t acknowledge certain people’s humanities and that has varied degrees. I mean, you could say the same thing in the States, too, right?

I was going to ask on that exact topic – the coded languages that exist within Jamaican culture. I’m aware of this cultural phenomenon called daggering, like a form of–

Your pronunciation is funny! Sorry [laughing].

I wasn’t going to pretend! I’ll let you have it.

Sorry, sorry, that was funny to me [still laughing].

I learned the term from Xaviera Simmons! She taught me about that particular phenomenon – I won’t give you a second laugh. I had perceived it from the exact opposite end: the more colonial, violent history of white men inhabiting and taking aggressive ownership of Jamaica. Do you feel that the inherent codes of gender relationships within your identity have become easier or harder to read as you’ve distanced with time?

A very good question. When you mean ‘harder to read’, you’re talking about the work, specifically?

Yes, the work and how you decode those experiences that you’ve talked about – those perceptions and [that of] homophobia.

What I’ve ended up having to do was…before, I was trying to highlight the violence, and now I’ve kind of receded from that. I’m thinking about the effects of otherness because I think, in a lot of ways, these gender roles, these rituals, and these violences that we act on our own bodies are just to reclaim some sense of power or some sense of authority on ourselves. So you would hear women talking about, “Boom, boom, turn up” and they do a jump and a split. Or, they’d take a cinder block and break it on their vaginas and they’re like, “Oh, this is female empowerment.” It feels like, in that way, it just doesn’t make any sense, does it? It is in the same way in which daggering mobilises this overtly sexual thing filled with violent behavior too, right? It’s not intimacy. It’s not passion. It’s aggressive, angry sex.

It’s brutal, almost.

Yeah, absolutely brutal. But it’s like they’re engaging this to entertain themselves. It’s a performance. I think that was my realisation. I’m like, “There is no fact to this. There is no real fact.” I guess, in a way, this is kind of how queerness works too, right? I would see these same acts, or similar acts, when you go to a gay party and they’re playing the same homophobic music, they’re daggering each other, and they’re throwing each other on the ground. You’re like, “Okay, what’s different here?” The difference here is that someone has taken on the female role and they’re not female, and someone has taken on a male role, and they might not even be male. So this was my dismantling of these structures. I’ve always asked myself, “Why are we the way we are? Why are we so violent? Why do we have so much anger for each other? Why, why, why?” I’ve dived into the history, and I’ve looked at subtle acts of violence. I inspected how class works. I’ve inspected how race works, especially in a place like Jamaica that’s mostly black people, but you just want to experience it by going into tourist resorts. It’s the same kind of structure. So “the plantation had migrated”, and that’s a quote directly from a Krista Thompson text. But for me, in the work, what I had to do was distance myself. I had to say, “All right, Leasho, who are you beyond this? Can you find peace within yourself? Can you embrace all your flaws, and the experience that they have, and still find peace and compassion and some form of solace with yourself?”

Well, this is actually a question I asked Muna [Malik], just before asking you.

Oh, yeah?

Leasho Johnson
Free To Be Constant In My Excess (2021)
Charcoal, distemper, watercolors, acrylic, oil, oil stick, and collage, on paper mounted on canvas
55 x 52 x 2 inches
Courtesy of the artist


I asked her if, at certain times, the act of producing your work provides solace, or is it catharsis? Or one or the other or neither?

I think it’s solace when it transcends the subject and becomes just the painting, right? Sometimes you wonder to yourself how this history or this past manifests itself to become this thing. This is how I’ve utilised the unrecognisable, because that is always something that we’ve existed with, including the uncertainty of living on an island and being bombarded by hurricanes. There is uncertainty in the work, and there is also a transcendence. It comes from taking all these materials, taking all these disciplines that I’ve worked and used before, and then smash them together. Kind of like having to rediscover what happened. I use a particular formula, but all of these formulas existed almost singularly in my past nine years of working. It’s simply using this kind of catharsis, as you were talking about, of representing this disdain and this pain; then, suddenly manifesting itself as something other or something else. Then, use that as a way to explain the mechanism of otherness and the mechanism of alienation. It becomes more of an interior endeavour, it becomes more of a psychological one. I thought, “All right, I can do it this way because I need to open it up to other people. I need to open it up to other conversations beyond the black experience, beyond the experience that I’ve had coming up from a post-colonial state.” I want to talk more about the effects of humanity, and how we even dispense this humanity to other folks that we might find a harder place to relate to, or even understand.

You have absorbed and had to process so much hostility and so much aggression, whether it’s through the lived experience of this postcolonial horror or through alienation and otherness. To seek the opposite, to seek compassion, gentility, reconciliation, do you go back to the work, or do you go into nature? How do you how do you find that reconciliation?

It’s a very good question. I mean, I put a lot of myself into the work. I’ve always been kind of dealing with these topics and dealing with these challenges. I always feel like every time I create a work, there is an endeavour to better myself. I’m seeking and I’m seeking discomfort. I’m seeking challenges that most folks haven’t even gotten a chance to reconcile. They can’t really put themselves out there in the same way that I’ve been putting myself out there. Every time I come back, or triumphed at some endeavour that I’ve endeavoured, I feel it not only affirms me as a person – as a thinking, feeling, breathing human – it also proves it to other people. So, I am kind of seeking affirmations in that way, but it’s really a very, very isolated project. I spent a lot of time by myself.

I read a lot, and in a lot of ways my reading and my understanding comes from just reflecting. “Why did I feel this way?” It’s something that’s probably hidden in a script somewhere, and I’m like, “Oh, that makes sense.” That was the effect of my coming here. My MFA programme (at SAIC) had a lot to do with going into historic artistry, and very conceptual artistry. For example, there’s this one called ‘Art and Poverty’, which was a very big deal. [Assistant Professor] Jason LaFountain really started it. I don’t think he really understood the effect it had on me, but it puts into place a lot of the reasons why, as creatives, we even work in the way that we work. In all of art history, I’ve seen the black body and how it was documented, how it was translated, and how other artists like Rembrandt would paint dirty feet. Simple things. Feet are a topic of poverty, because it’s the depiction of poverty in art. The professor of this course was Jason LaFountain, but I was talking about how I seek and find knowledge in different things to reconcile with these anxieties and experiences. It’s the journey that really gets me to where I am at. Not the fear, but the fearlessness of not being afraid to fail. Does that make sense? Yeah, of not being afraid to fail. I realise it’s something artists have to deal with a lot.

Failure is no terminus. I believe that.

Yeah, yeah.

Leasho Johnson
Buried Beyond the Pasture Without Any Names (Anansi #22) (2023)
Charcoal, distemper, watercolor, indigo dye, logwood dye, acrylic, oil, oil stick, gold foil, gold leaf, gesso on paper mounted on canvas
67 x 52 x 2 inches
Courtesy of the artist


Next question: how did you find out about this incredible collection of artists with PM/AM, and the ‘Between the Seams’ exhibition? Did you find it, or did it find you?

It found me. I’m not sure. It probably it has something to do with Paul Anthony Smith, who is also a Jamaican colleague. I knew that he and Larry Ossei-Mensah were curating this project together. I knew he was always interested in the work. So I would definitely put all of that on Paul Anthony. I don’t know Larry, but I know he’s a big, very popular name on social media. I try to keep [an] active social media engagement.

He’s a good guy.

Yeah, absolutely.

Ten years ago, we were sitting next to each other in a teeny, two-person booth in an Italian restaurant in South Florida. My father took us both to dinner. He was staying with me while we were going to Art Week in Miami. My father asked Larry what he did for a living and he said, “Oh, I’m a curator.” His response, “A what? A…huh?”

Why this disbelief?

I said, “Larry, you’re trying to convince a 70-plus, half-British, half-Polish, Jewish doctor what a curator is. It’s not going to happen.”

Oh my God.

We laughed.

Yeah, it’s worlds apart. It’s funny because, remember, nobody knew what a curator was ten years ago, either. It’s like, “What is a curator?”

I said to Larry, “Don’t worry about it. Enjoy your chicken parmesan.” It was a real bridging of worlds because my father had no conception of this art world. I said, “Larry, you’re still okay, keep going, I promise you.”

It’s amazing what he does.

The last formal question is a bit more fun, a bit more loose. When you’re in the studio, or when you’re in your work environment, is there a group of things – food or music or something – in your studio that you have to have with you at all times?

That’s a very good question. Ah, I have to have coffee just to keep the energy going. I always have to have my AirPods. I always have to be listening to music. I listen to hip-hop and to reggae a lot. It’s funny because I’ve been getting a lot into what my dad used to listen to. He doesn’t listen to a lot of Bob Marley, but I’m listening to a lot of Chronixx and Protegé, mostly neo-reggae guys. I listen to Grace Jones. I love Grace Jones. And it’s funny because I was terrified of her as a young kid.

You would be of “Mayday”. You would be.

I mean, she’s great, but I appreciate her even more now, you know? What else? I’ve been listening to Chaka Khan a lot, especially in her Rufus era. That’s kind of like how it is.

Leasho Johnson
Photo Credit: Enrique Rosell

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