In 2015, Small Axe: A Journal of Caribbean Criticism published the groundbreaking catalog, Caribbean Queer Visualities edited by David Scott, Erica Moiah James, and Nijah Cunningham. It featured a sustained, and perhaps overdue, engagement between artists and scholars that sought to peruse a sense of the current political-aesthetic conjuncture. The task of the issue was to think the visual cultures of the region as artifacts as well as modes of inquiry and critique. What emerged was a provocative field of vision from which to consider new questions being produced by a generation with waning attachments to the earlier dreams of postcolonial sovereignty. Because the catalog’s provocations remain pertinent, I will quote them at length:
How have Caribbean artists responded to the ideological and sometimes legal constraints around sexual identity and sexual practice? How have they responded to the conformist state and to community practices concerning modes of family, kinship, and belonging? Can one read dissenting engagements with sexual identity in the practice of Caribbean visual practitioners? In what ways? Indeed, can one speak broadly of a “queer visuality” in the Caribbean? What, in short, are the dimensions of Caribbean queer aesthetics, and what might some of the implications be for a queer perspective on Caribbean contemporary art practice?1
Among the artists featured was Leasho Johnson whose work is still deeply in dialogue with these questions. More pointedly, Johnson continues to challenge Caribbean aesthetic traditions invested in representation as a form of redress. Working primarily through painting, sculpture, and collage, Johnson refuses postcolonial regimes of legibility that rely on generating vindicationist forms of evidence. Instead, his work is mischievous as it experiments with the unruliness of desire in Jamaica.2 In his hands, the intimate and sensuous fractures of the nation gather playfully to interrogate the cultural, historical, and political imperatives of gender and sexuality that frame the contemporary moment.
In this conversation, we meditate on the development of his practice, from the influence of his father’s paintings, through his years as a graphic designer in Jamaica, and then the current state of his work in the United States. There is a real commitment to thinking beyond simply reaching backwards for formal and philosophical inspiration. Johnson has armed himself promiscuously with tools and techniques that create new ways of reading the tensions between popular culture and middle-class respectability as well as the affective (dis)continuities between marginalized rural and urban populations. His work also offers different ways of encountering the porous boundaries between the sacred and profane, queer forms of relation in Jamaica and the antagonisms that structure their production, among other concerns with memory, materiality, and violence. For example, Johnson has been widely recognized for using Japanese Kawaii design styles to create figures of women in dancehall such as in “Land of Big Hood and Water.” The beguiling cuteness of the form itself intensifies perceptions of the terror and the pleasure that comes with being a woman in such an artistic and cultural space. From the contentious and signature work of Barcelona-based German artist, Boris Hoppek, Johnson extrapolates the blackface figure to ask questions about the violence of value in relation to blackness, more particularly by questioning caricatured representations of black masculinity.
We might compare Johnson’s methodical mischief to a literary figure that preceded him by almost a century — Claude McKay who, in his early adult years, declared himself a “vagabond with a purpose.”3 In fact, although McKay is often dubbed one of the Harlem Renaissance’s finest poets, he was absent for many of its active years and, according to his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way From Home, James Weldon Johnson had even asked him to return to the United States “to participate in the Negro renaissance movement.”4 McKay had been traveling, posing nude in Paris studios, engaging an audience of revolutionaries in Soviet Russia, living and learning in Morocco. In other words, both Johnson and McKay’s travels made it possible for them to actively resist rootedness, and to foster an openness that approximates the kind of relational poetics that Édouard Glissant calls on artists to explore. As Johnson discusses his experiences in graduate school, he reflects on his disappointment that although he initially anticipated being in community with peers who embraced this openness that queerness promised, he soon realized that theirs was an ossified, highly commercialized, and elitist form of identification. The result was that he encountered a similar sense of alienation to that which he experienced as a gay man in Jamaica.
But out of these multiple displacements, Johnson has produced new avenues for thinking about the imbrications of blackness and queerness within and against what Sylvia Wynter has called “the governing mode of the cultural imagination.”5 Johnson’s work has been exhibited regionally in: the 2012 and 2022 Jamaica Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica; his 2017 solo show, “Bellisario and the Soundboy” at the New Local Space in Jamaica; and the 2017 “Of Skin and Sand” exhibition at the National Gallery of Bahamas. He has also had exhibitions in the United States and Europe, these shows include: the “Caribbean Queer Visualities” exhibition at Yale University as well as its staging at the Golden Thread Gallery in Ireland and the Transmission Gallery in Scotland; the “Jamaican Routes” exhibition at Punkt Ø Gallerie in Norway and the “Jamaica Jamaica” exhibition at Philharmonie De Paris in France. He has held several residencies and was awarded the New Artist Society Scholarship from the School of Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 2018. Johnson holds a BFA from Edna Manley College of the Visual & Performing Arts and an MFA from the School of the Arts Institute, Painting and Drawing. I invite readers to be in conversation, to nod along, to stage a riot in the margins, and/or to laugh as we dialogue through Johnson’s inimitable and pathbreaking work.
Jovanté Anderson: Leasho, I have been an admirer of your work, since Back Fi A Bend, 2015.6 I still remember encountering it in Kingston on my way home and feeling a sense of awe, some surprise, a perverse kind of pleasure, that somebody was offending our almost Victorian Jamaican sensibilities! So hopefully we get to talk about this piece, specifically, as well as your 2016 exhibition with the New Local Space titled Bellisario and the Sound Boy.7 But before we get there, I would love to hear some more about your journey to where you are in your practice today. Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing? I was listening to an interview you gave some time ago where you talked about your father’s practice, the ways in which he is fascinated by and chooses to represent landscapes and women. Is it perhaps a coincidence that your earlier work also focuses on landscape and women?8 I’m thinking, for example, of how the sweetness of sugarcane and the sweetness of wining9 meet in a painting, such as ‘Rude to Your Parents.’
So, did your father’s work have an influence on your own? What are some of the other ways that growing up in the countryside influenced your artistic sensibilities, in a way that it might not if you were really, say, in the inner cities of Kingston?
Leasho Johnson: Well, for one, I think, I grew up in an environment that made me aware, from early on, that I had the power and the ability to achieve certain things.
My father preached a lot about the autonomy of being financially independent by just being able to create something from nothing, so from early on, I knew that I could maximize on the efficiency of creating. The challenge I had was that I was annoyed with the actual frivolity of his own philosophy of life and art. I thought art was something where you nonchalantly woke up in the morning and smoked some weed until you felt like and then you went to paint. I was kind of annoyed with the structure of his practice. It didn’t feel like a business and, because of that, it didn’t really become a business for my father. I don’t think he was very good at monetizing it and I ventured into designing because I thought designing was more functional and it had purpose. It wasn’t something I needed to figure out, like artmaking. It was kind of cut and very much to the point: you designed something,the client pays for it, and you go to the next job.
Thinking about my career now in terms of being a designer, I saw myself as somebody who could take something and make it really good. And it allowed me to critique the Jamaican aesthetic as it relates to graphic design.
I was trying to focus on fonts and empty spaces. And I think that kind of came into my approach when I started doing contemporary painting. When I did the first exhibition at the National Gallery, I did a triptych and it was very, very much inspired by a Rothko effect.10 And, to my detriment, I’ve been criticized for even using Rothko as a reference, but the fact is what I was trying to do is empty the clutter. There’s this kind of need for a lot in our tastes as it relates to aesthetics and it’s almost as if emptiness, or not having something referential to the body in terms of reproduction or representation, is a non value and I’ve been kind of thinking about how that kind of psyche of clutter filters into everything we do, you know?
And that was why, when I did the characters that I did for Back-fi-a-Bend, they were very much intangible and even though there were figurative elements in the work, the figurative elements were see-through, you know, they weren’t solid.
And it’s simply because I wanted to just kind of reduce the chaos in a certain way. Because I think that’s part of the thing when you leave the country, and then you come to the city — there’s a lot of chaos and not just spatial chaos, but psychological chaos. And I realized that space is probably a luxury in the city, unless you live uptown, in a nice fancy house where you have a backyard, with a mango tree, even though that is something that is already standard in the countryside.
You know, you have so much of it you don’t even want it, but then you come to the city and realize, oh my God, it’s nasty, it’s messy, there’s this kind of clutter, lots and lots of clutter and so the works I’ve been creating was just critiquing these things, carrying emptiness into a dancehall space, if that can even happen. I was just thinking about empty space within depictions of dancehall becoming a mode of clarity. I was just thinking about how to trace back 300–400 years of slavery and the psychological build-up from that, the lack of even seeing and understanding self. How does that build up into something that can be condensed and laid in front of you bare and simple and so that history kind of drives the psychology of clutter in the inner-city. I think about my use of cartoon as caricature and it’s definitely an exaggeration of certain things, but then there’s also the fact that it simplifies it, and it reduces it to a way that it becomes so satirical that you’re not sure if you’re looking at the same thing that you have encountered on the road. Yeah, I hope that answered the question.
Jovanté Anderson: Definitely, definitely I mean I’m really fascinated by the distinctions you are making between emptiness and clutter or chaos and I wonder if you could talk some more about that kind of urban clutter, urban chaos. I guess I’m trying to point to some of the oral qualities of your description of emptiness, because when I hear emptiness I hear silence also, but when I see your work I don’t hear silence, I hear loud, you know what I mean? So I’m trying to think about the emptiness that you’re talking about, but to hold that in in conversation with the “shocking colors” of your work, as you mentioned, in one of your interviews11 and how the shocking colors themselves, they’re loud, they speak loudly.
What I’m trying to ask about is: what is the relationship for you between emptiness, clutter, and sound? Even in emptiness, are you also trying to convey sound? Is that what you’re trying to do? Is emptiness something that allows you to hear better than clutter and chaos does?
Leasho Johnson: Okay, so let me first clarify this emptiness thing because I realized, especially since I’ve gotten to graduate school, I’ve gotten a different understanding of emptiness. And emptiness pops up a lot when you’re talking about abstract expressionism and art in general, but when you’re talking about the Western canon of emptiness and artwork, especially in, say, the Americas, it’s a space in the painting.
You know, sometimes they call it a ‘sublime’ but it’s basically that space where the painting evokes an emotion of emptiness.12
And in art history, it is read as this kind of sacred space that paintings take people. But what I’ve started to critique and analyze about it was just that I’ve been seeing a lot of artists, especially in grad school, trying to find emptiness in their artwork by literally hollowing it of content. And I realized that that is a luxury for Western or American painters. These wealthy people search for emptiness because they have so much of everything and when you have so much of everything, you crave emptiness. And for me, I realized that that is exactly one of the reasons why they would want to go to the tropics or to the Caribbean. It’s been purposefully emptied by industrialization, and so it becomes a void but the tropical space that stands in its place is also a luxury. Besides that, the emptiness that I’m talking about that comes from the Caribbean is a psychological emptiness.
Okay, so growing up in the countryside, there is this void we encounter there, especially when it comes to trying to find value in ourselves and being hopeful about becoming something through education and positive motivation. Religion tends to fill that void a lot. But that feeling in the countryside itself is a kind of void that is exclusive to the abject. It’s also exclusive to people who grew up in an inner city or people who grew up in the ghetto or people who grew up in the countryside that don’t have any money, they don’t see what they can actually do with their own abilities, there’s this kind of hopelessness and that’s the kind of void that I’m talking about, that’s the kind of emptiness that I’m thinking about.
And what hurts me the most is that this is something that’s been kind of thrust upon us, because a lot of things are taken from our country, you know? Even when you think about bauxite. It’s aluminum, but you know, it’s literally taking the soil from our country and refining it, taking it to other countries for them to produce stuff then, we have to buy it back.
Yeah, there are people who made money from it, there’s this thing that “oh, it’s economically viable,” but very few people actually experienced that economic viability and that’s just been the history of the country or history of the Caribbean from day one.
That’s the kind of emptiness that I’m talking about. So, yes, this emptiness can be loud and noisy, because empty barrels make the most noise; we’re very good at partying and having fun, because then it becomes a space of forgetting for some. So that’s another void. And that’s how the dancehall functions. The dancehall functions as a place to get over your woes, get over your challenges, forget your stress, wine and galang13 and have fun, that’s what it’s there for.
So, in a way it’s still a kind of hopeless space, but it’s filled with a lot of sound and a lot of visuals. And that, for me, just challenges a kind of Western painting art understanding of voids and I’ve been kind of contesting that from me set foot at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago].
It just seems like only a Caribbean person can understand it, and that’s kind of like my objective now. And so the body of work I created in that time was mainly about that. It was all about contending with a void, contending with an exclusion. Then I slowly evolved into working through queerness, and I’m using that word tentatively, because it’s an expansive way to think about gender and sexuality.
And I was really just thinking about the void in dancehall, as a gay man in Jamaican too, because I think one of the other challenges I had is that there’s an expectation, especially if you’re gay or you just don’t have any kids, you’re carrying a kind of legacy baggage with the expectation of your gender role, or what your body’s function is. It’s supposed to fulfill a particular function or else you’re just a wasteman14 or something that just doesn’t have any place in society and so I’ve been kind of thinking about all the bodies carrying the weight of this gendered pressure and then, of course, the slavery that goes with that pressure too. And it’s a double whammy and there’s no way to get out of it.
It puts me in a very strange place with dancehall because we talk about dancehall as a queer space and expression,15 but I’m not just dealing with dancehall as a positive space. It’s also a very, very negative space, especially for me, so yeah I can go into the dancehall space, but you know my history growing up is that I also felt like I lost myself there.
You know? I am the guy who has to be picking the girl up and daggering16 her on the floor and stuff like that so my work is acknowledging this kind of trap, it’s acknowledging what you have to do in society and not necessarily who you desire. It’s not a place of truth, I think of it now as like a coming-of-age or like a ritual that galvanizes your role in society. So it’s all about imagery, it’s all about playing, it’s all about performance. It’s a performative space.
Jovanté Anderson: I know you’re saying that the space of the dancehall kind of allows people to fend off the void, but in some ways, it seems as though the void finds its way back into the dancehall space, you know? You’re speaking about certain kinds of performances of masculinity which, in my opinion, often feel like a stand-in for a desire to be seen as human, to be recognized as human, which, when we think about the history of gender and slavery or gender and blackness and the ways that black people were denied gender, the point that you’re making is even more salient. Certain claims to humanity were often made through an expression or a desire to be recognized as a man or a woman and so I’m very fascinated by the way that you’re theorizing dancehall and the void as something that almost encroaches or finds its way even in the center of the space itself.
And how you were talking about the landscape reminds me that there’s a literal void in the earth, when the bauxite is excavated. So Jamaica seems, in my mind now, after having this conversation with you, to have so many different kinds of voids. In dancehall and, as you so aptly point out, within people living in the city and in the countryside.
I wonder if you might talk a little bit about the landscape paintings of Bellisario then because I noticed that with each of his paintings, you overlay the landscape with these anime figures. I don’t know if that’s the term you’d use. Or Kawaii figures?
Leasho Johnson: Avatars.
Jovanté Anderson: Thank you! I was wondering if you might talk some more about the void on the plantation or within the plantation setting themselves. Because I’m wondering if what you’re doing here is demonstrating the way that that void, which is to say the area of the plantation that the avatars don’t cover, is itself almost impossible to fill. Because we see the figures in Rude to your parents17 overlay the landscape, but then you can still see parts of the landscape and you can see the literal emptiness between the reddish orange avatars that overlay the landscape.
You can see the space that gives us a clear view of, for example, the master or the woman who is wining, you can still see the plantation, even as these reddish orange avatars overlay. So are you trying to do something there, in terms of the way that you’re structuring space, are you trying to say something there about voids as well?
Leasho Johnson: In a way, yes, and, in a way, no. I think what I was trying to do, I was trying to say that technically what’s happening in those “paintings” — ok…I keep on critiquing my old work, because I think I’m more of a painter now than I was then, and people saw them as paintings, but I wasn’t really thinking of them as paintings. They’re really objects that were painted, and the reason why is because the images came from JB Kidd.18 It came from these artists that came to the Caribbean as observers and there wasn’t any mainstream photography there yet, there were no cameras, so what they had to do, they had to interpret these landscapes by experiencing them.
And what I was thinking about is just that the device of painting tends to distort even though they are “factual” in a way. Because what kind of shocked me was this was Westmoreland where I grew up and I was like wow, this is actually home, right? But then of course, how I experienced home is not how these people do, but I saw value in it, because I was thinking, okay, this is a record, it’s a heritage thing. One of the problems I have is that it’s hard to perceive our own history, but here is this very 19th century painting that is factual, but, you have to take it with a spoon of sugar because it may not be the actual thing, it might just be this person’s fantasy.
The body in itself being overlaid on it is another form of fantasy, so in a way I’m quantifying the landscape as a figure and the figure as a representation of how this landscape is seen. So if you notice in some of these paintings, I think one of them had a coconut tree coming up, covering one of the nipples of one of the characters.
And then there was one of them where the last figure was kind of relaxing and it had a banana tree in the center and the banana tree becomes phallic because it was centered between the character’s leg and it’s hard to see just by looking at it, because it’s very busy, it was a very elaborate painting. But yeah, I was kind of activating the Caribbean or activating a sense of the Caribbean, through the interaction of these two images, the JB Kidd and the overlaid avatar.
It was important for me to do this because I needed to understand the value of where I’m from. Now, I have a really good vantage point or understanding of how I came to be and how the Caribbean came to be and a lot of it is documented.
There is also another of my paintings with a canefield of some folks chopping cane and then there were these waves of butts, kind of silhouetted on top of each other, that came from a catalog, I think from Brian Rosen who created the photographs. I’m not sure exactly, but I think it’s a series of photographs that was done in the 80s. I think it was called “beach bums.” lt was about these women in bikinis and they’re tanned, they’re glossy. It’s JTB [Jamaica Tourist Board] so they were kind of inviting people to come and observe beautiful dark-skinned butts on the beach glowing and so the character took on that.
I think one of the other photographs in the JTB series was the version of the poster, you know the Trinidadian lady word ‘Jamaica’ sprawled over her chest?19 Right, that’s from that same series of photographs, so I just used that beach bum image to overlay on the painting of the landscape.
I’ve been trying, from day one, to talk about the locale, its history and in its present, embodied in a black experience that becomes a nationality or an identity and, so, it’s not the individual as an individual, but the individual as a destination, as value through the land.
I mean it was just kind of like a realization I had to create this series. I needed to see this thing in front of me because I was thinking about art not dealing with these very obvious things, and the reason why I’ve talked about it is because these tourist images exclude us from a human experience. Even to find space as a gay person, it excludes you.
How do you then find value within yourself? You can’t find value being in your own home or being from this country because Jamaican identity excludes gay identity. And it’s weird because I’ve been trying to then think about how blackness and queerness comes into the same space. I mean now, you see a lot of black queer people [in Jamaica], but in a sense, the same black person, the same black queer person, doesn’t have home in like an inner city or in these other zones that are very, very strictly one thing or identity, that’s very masculine that’s very kind of —
Jovanté Anderson: Which is ironic.
Leasho Johnson: What was that?
Jovanté Anderson: No, go ahead, I was just saying it’s so ironic, because these men tend to be very, as Nadia Ellis has explored, quite queer in the space of the dancehall, but also, at the same time, quite violent in terms of how they respond to people who transgress these norms more generally, so I agree, I agree, yes.
Leasho Johnson: Yeah, yeah, I mean you have to understand how these spaces are activated. I realized everything in the Caribbean is activated through context so it’s not that these men might not be queer. It’s the fact that the queerness functions as a certain thing here in the dancehall and outside of it, it’s you know, you still have to kind of relinquish every doubt that you’re actually queer, so it’s really kind of like a mind fuck.
And you know we understand this negotiation of gender and sexuality because it’s normal there. This is also how we navigate our spaces as gay people, as kind of like masters of disguise. You have to have a kid, you have to wear the mantle of man very, very well, and then, at the same time, if you like it up the bum, then you have your boyfriend that you can probably have in public and no one suspects is your boyfriend, you go to the gym together. Even here in the US, when you talk about being DL, it’s the same thing.20
They fear the non-human aspect of being queer. The desire to be human even finds its way through religion. I always see religion as this kind of vehicle through which we try to justify our humanity and it’s served that purpose, from day one.
And DL men are aware of the fact that religion definitely excludes them from humanity. There’s still a lot of tension between religion and sexuality and it’s just for the same reason, you know religion is supposed to give us this mantle of humanity, but what it really is, it’s a filter and a way of creating a power structure that filters us, especially black people and people of color. It’s as if you can’t claim humanity if you’re not Christian and I think about those things now more than ever, because I am not Christian.
I try not to fit in any box, just the ones that I’m making for myself, you know, and people find it kind of problematic, but I think we’re at a stage now where we can understand and see clearly what society is as a construction. I’m just trying to liberate myself the best way I can, sorry, I mean that was kind of like a tangent, but you know?
Jovanté Anderson: I think all of what you’re saying is relevant and I’m fascinated by the way that you switch between ‘gay’ and ‘queer’ and I was wondering if you might talk some more about that.
Are these distinctions important to you? What critical space are you holding between each of them that would have to cause you to say ‘gay’ in one moment and ‘queer’ in another moment? And then maybe you might talk some more about some of our own local naming practices when it comes to queerness and what kind of relationship you have to those terms.
Leasho Johnson: Right so, I realize the scale of queerness tends to move, it moves. Now it’s very, very performative here in the United States so if you’re not distinctively queer in presentation, people don’t consider you to be queer.
I use the terms separately and as two different things, because, for me, if you’re gay, it means you are a guy who likes men. It’s very gendered, it’s one thing that seems to be fixed for now, but when I use queerness I think about it more expansively. It’s a cool word. Everybody wants to be queer, but what it really is is a way of describing strangeness, that’s what it is. It’s a way of describing things outside of the norm.
But I realize it’s starting to homogenize in a way where people assume you need to present yourself in a particular way, especially when I came here to the States. In Jamaica, we’re so fucking sensitive to these things. The moment you walk and your hips dem sway a likkle way, people automatically see you, but here, it’s a non-factor. No one sees gender or sexuality the same way here, so it has to be pronounced, it has to be loud. You have to be wearing lipstick and the leopard print and the earring and I’m not that. Because I kind of grew up in a space where that’s shun.
I never had the urge to do it, but because of that now, I find myself being on the outskirts. I’m not accepted as queer.
Jovanté Anderson: Oh, really?
Leasho Johnson: Even yesterday, a guy asked me if I was queer. But I think for him it’s because I’m not into fashion in the same way. I don’t have the language, but you have to understand that American queerness is a brand. You have to understand that it’s marketed and it’s monetized. So when they say, “Oh! You’re not queer,” they often mean that you’re not a part of the homogeny. You can’t be fit into that “thing.”
But here’s the ironic thing: not being part of the homogeny of American queerness itself is queer.
But now it happens in school and I’m annoyed by it because I get excluded for that. People assume that I’m straight. No, I’m just me. It frustrates me, I’m sorry because it’s like one exclusion after the other. Back home, I tried to be as invisible as possible, and then here I am even more invisible. And it gets to me because you’d imagine that certain folks here would accept you or whatever, but you realize that’s not what happens. They want to hang out with their own type of people, they want to hang out with their own queer people, so they want to hang out with people who are fashionable, they want to hang out with people who wear makeup, and I mean, I’m not judging anybody, but it’s been a rough thing for me [being here].
That’s how I think about ‘gay’ and ‘queer’. Queerness is an all inclusive thing. I’m against it becoming homogenous because it excludes people who don’t present in American ways. It’s just about how I embody myself. I embody myself in a certain way because of the men I grew up around. I’m not trying to be trendy, basically and I have no interest in it.
Jovanté Anderson: I think what you’re saying reminds me a lot about some of my own work and my own anxieties about certain kinds of visibility, which you also seem to be wary of.
Not just here in the US, but also locally, I think there is a way that certain, I don’t want to call them factions, but certain factions, for want of a better word, develop a relationship to American or US interpretations of queerness and also they develop a local framework of what queer liberation might look like from a US style of politics and often what that ends up doing is obscuring or erasing or doing violence to how people are actually negotiating homophobia locally, and so I was very struck by your describing yourself as invisible even though it seems as though in terms of public space, and the work that you’ve done in public space, that that in itself is quite visible.
And so I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about the public spaces in which you put your work such as by the walls of Abby Court. That was one of them that really surprised me because I grew up in Harbour View, lower-middle class, not very glamorous. Then I went to Ardenne High School which was more firmly middle class and upper-class so I was adjusting to seeing all these different kinds of people that I didn’t even know could be Jamaican! Lighter-skinned Jamaicans, white Jamaicans! When dem open dem mout and mi hear patwa, I’m like, this is happening, here?!
Going to a kind of uptown21 high school was an eye-opener for me because that space itself was configured much differently than where I was from in Harbour View and a lot of how I held my body in that space, the kind of notions of propriety were instilled in me while being in this different space. When you’re walking on the road in your school uniform, especially when you’re walking along that space by the Abby Court, going into Half Way Tree, the rule is that nobody’s tie should be mis-tied or out of place.
You should look “good” on the road, present yourself good on the road. Nuh mek nobody see you a gwaan like a hooligan pan the road. All of these kinds of strictures about public space that, growing up in Harbour View, I had none of those rules about how my body should move in that space, and so I was very struck by your positioning of Back-fi-a-Bend by the courts. Could talk some more about why you chose that space because, as I said, I have my own relationship to that space and even going back to that space today, once I walk on that road, mi back straighten up little bit, mi English get a little tighter, you know?
Leasho Johnson: It does something to you physically! Interesting, I didn’t even know about that, I mean my school culture was very different because I grew up in the country, but your experience tells me what it is like to be in an urban space like Kingston. One of the first things I encountered when I came into Kingston was just how much people look at you differently depending on your address, I came from the country, so people treat me differently, and I can definitely say if I’ve ever been to the ghetto, it’s not on purpose. I’ve never had to live there. I’ve never had any friends from there. And it’s purely voluntary if I say I’m going to go there to do something.
I went to Liguanea once,22 I went into a store, people started to look at me funny, they treated me differently. I have a friend with light skin and he doesn’t have a penny, he doesn’t have any money, but they assumed that he was the one with the money. And it was just one of those experiences I’ve had that’s reminded me how we tend to police ourselves in spaces, we police our own bodies.
We are definitely very, very aware of how we behave and who we are, in certain spaces and you know, I was using the artwork to kind of nudge at these things and kind of push buttons. Because people were more open to having the wall art in Downtown Kingston versus having it somewhere there in New Kingston or uptown, and so, for me, it was very, very, very activist in terms of where the artwork goes. When I did that piece, I was thinking about the kind of cultures that we have in terms of the history of our bodies so, for example, I mounted Back-fi-a-bend the night before Labor Day. Labor Day, in Kingston is really a day of not going to work. It’s for going to a party in the countryside! To wine-up, wine-up!
Because of that, some people didn’t even see the piece, the streets of Kingston were empty that day, no one was there to see the work but that’s why it was there! It’s dealing with these kinds of ghosts of labor, it’s dealing with the idea that there are people who, our foreparents who are from the country, came to Kingston and they labored, they had to toil.
I contrast that with dancehall choreography as another kind of work, you know? You still have to wuk up yu waist. It’s still in the legacy of work, but it’s talking about a different kind of work.
And I had to put the banana on the hips because I’m seeing now in dancehall, during daggering, where they use objects to activate this psychology of, not erasure, but it gets really blasé, it gets really loud, putting people in pots and putting people in wheelbarrows and trees, and bikes, motorbikes, and it’s just a way of thinking about why we’re here.
That’s the crux, that’s what I want the work to talk about: why are you here? Why Labor Day? I think I’m just kind of annoyed with the amnesia that we get. The body remembers but our minds don’t, we don’t remember, our parents don’t know anything about several generations behind them, but we tend to behave and reenact and emotions come out in a particular thing in a particular way, and then we choose to express it in a way that’s very violent and then it brings back the strife of being in a space, like a postcolonial Jamaica. The remnants of slavery keep on coming up in other ways. And that piece was kind of like directly dealing with that.
Jovanté Anderson: Yes, and I think one of the things that strikes me about the piece is the amount of bananas both as a phallic symbol but also as a representation of capitalist production. The woman strikes me as this figure doing double kinds of labor there as well.
Just a few minutes ago, you did say there’s a way that the dancehall space becomes violent and I’m thinking about Kei Miller’s piece “On This Island Of Broken Penises” that he wrote about dancehall and the way that violence in dancehall, especially after daggering, or during that period of time, was just really, really brutally violent for women.23
I’m curious to know if, in your work, you’re also thinking about pleasure, women’s pleasure. Is that something that’s interesting to you? Do you think that’s something that’s already overdone? But also, are you also finding that there are moments of complication where you can’t tell the difference between violence and pleasure in dancehall and are there moments where the women themselves feel pleasure from the violence?
Leasho Johnson: You see, I can’t really speak about any woman, in particular, but I am very aware of the violence that’s being inflicted on women, whether they want it or not. You hear some women talking about how they want their men to be rough and violent. And I guess, yeah, it could be a fetish and I think that’s kind of the suggestion that daggering is making, a kind of fetishization, but, in reality, no one really does those things. If anything is going to become as violent as how it expresses it during daggering, it’s abuse. You could hurt yourself, broken penises and broken vaginas! It’s all performative and it’s all illusion.
The reason why I even considered using this avatar which is sometimes definitely represented as a woman, sometimes it has breasts and the proportions are kind of feminine, is because I am trying to take the focus off myself in a way, because I think there’s an expectation in terms of how I’m supposed to perform as a man or what I’m supposed to be interested in.
So I was using the woman, the female body, as a vessel which is why now, in my present works, I veer away from it, because I realized my audience is bigger than Jamaica. I’ve always been just dealing with Jamaica as the subject matter and as the audience and I realized the moment I left Jamaica it’s become bigger than its objective. Because I remember just doing the same Back-fi-a-Bend. I did it in Paris and also did it in Brazil and in Brazil it was a completely different reaction.
Jovanté Anderson: Yes, I was going to ask you about that earlier.
Leasho Johnson: Women, especially black women there are seen as objects, sexually objectified and I was working with some folks, I can’t remember her name but you know she is very much an activist, a musician and she was very, very open about her position on the work. I appreciate it even today. When you go to Brazil and watch TV, there are no black people on TV. There’s a Coke ad and you see boobs flashing and that’s when you’re going to see a black woman, because it’s sex and it can be objectified in that way.
So there’s this kind of invisibility, but the reason I felt I had to create these avatars is because the Jamaican space that I’m navigating is very, very not open to talking about sexuality, which I also thought was very ironic. You know, coming from the home of dancehall where it’s very, very sexual and even how we speak and communicate with each other, is very sexual but it can’t be represented in something fixed like an image.
And that was kind of like my space for operation. I was just thinking about if the things that they were singing about and these performances that they’re doing at night can be stopped and then put in the day, would it still have the same kind of reaction. And it obviously doesn’t. I mean if you think about two years ago, in 2018 Spice was asked to perform at a national event and the performer before her did Gospel and then she came on stage with “skin out mi pumpum!”24
And it messed people up. I said to myself “It’s the same space!” But you just have to understand how music works in Jamaica and how expression works. That’s the problem, though, that’s the contradiction that we put ourselves in, and being able to confront these things is really tough and the reality of it is that people just don’t want to deal with it, you know? The female body carries a lot of these things. I felt because of who I was I gave myself license to work this way.
Jovanté Anderson: The example of Jamaican space that you give with Spice is fascinating because on one hand, it seems as though that crowd, the dignitaries, parliamentarian, elite crowd sitting in the audience that day love dancehall especially as something that can be marketed and served to tourists in some ways, and maybe they might actually genuinely love it in their own spare time, they might, which you know, we might ask what kind of void they’re trying to fill there. Is that also a kind of psychological void that they are trying to fill with dancehall or with soca?
But in that space, you had the Gospel music and what really struck me is that Spice saw no problem at all coming on after the Gospel, there was no contradiction for her.
Leasho Johnson: It’s not Church, right? Come on!
Jovanté Anderson: Right, yeah exactly and I’m thinking about Pat Saunders’ essay about the way that the sacred and the profane are not these distinct categories in Caribbean culture25 and I think that’s exactly what that Spice performance and her understanding of public space demonstrates that you can sing a sankey in one minute, which orients your body to spirit in a particular way, but it doesn’t mean that “skin out your pumpum” isn’t also another kind of spiritual experience!
Leasho Johnson: Exactly, exactly, yeah!
Jovanté Anderson: This is a kind of a perfunctory question, but I wanted to know more about the artists that have inspired your work, whether in the past or now.
Leasho Johnson: Well, okay, I can definitely say that I started thinking about my work in a particular way when I encountered Boris Hoppek’s work. He was making blackface figures. I mean I loved it because it was when street art started becoming very interesting, so people were doing very interesting things with you know, simplification and format. He was making this doll head and putting it on a body and taking a picture of it or he’d make stuffed toys. And wall murals and stuff. I was not understanding why this person was doing what they were doing while getting away with it.
It was art school at the time, and I was just kind of becoming very self conscious about race and how it’s been described, so you know the blackface was a lot in his work, very, very iconic and I liked it, but at the same time I didn’t like it. And so I decided to make my own version of it. I was then, of course, also inspired by the graphic designer style, the anime, [for example] the Kawaii, where you can express something that’s cute but then violent so this was kind of like the early 2000s like 2006 [2007, 2008, 2009].
There was a kind of surge, a lot of street artists make their name at that point in time. I was thinking, okay, street art seems to be an avenue that’s unexplored in Jamaica, and I wanted to kind of start on it so in creating characters [for Back-fi-a-Bend] I was thinking about that. And I think it was 2011 or 2012 for this local art competition, SuperPlus Under 40, and this was at that gallery on the NCB [National Commercial Bank building] complex.
It came about because I was in this one small room that was like an auditorium like a meeting room. Spice was there and did the thing where she came on stage with her legs open. One guy was holding it there and I decided to make a character based on it. And you know just the styling of the head and I was thinking about how it translates three-dimensionally. And so the body had to kind of work where it would imitate choreography almost the same way so I had to think about reduction, it had to still be referencing the female, the human, body, in a certain way and when I did that one, that was the first iteration and so after that I thought about it as as three-dimensional. It became a foundation for having discussions throughout most of my early work, especially in the Anansi paintings.26
Jovanté Anderson: Do you also see street art in some ways as democratizing? In some ways, does it allow for you to expand the scope of who your viewer or your audience may be, especially in a space like Jamaica, or maybe even elsewhere, because I saw some of your street art in Aruba as well. Is this something that you’re intentionally thinking about as a democratizing art tool?
Leasho Johnson: Yeah, which kind of backfired on me. My intent was to democratize artmaking and ask where art is being displaced and for whom? Who consumes it? There’s definitely an economical aspect to it, especially in Jamaica, where the value of street art is valid as a kind of threat to tradition. A lot of the artists that I’ve seen come out of the [Edna Manley] art school, probably up until like a certain time, are very, very much engaged in the gallery space, so I had the excuse of talking about the gallery space outside of the gallery space or talking about the construction of artistic exclusion as a way of talking about classism in Jamaica, but the reason I said it backfired on me is because, when I did that Hope Road piece, I mean a lot of people liked it, but many other people didn’t like it.
Many people couldn’t see the bigger message. The distraction was the bodies, and I thought that was kind of ironic because it’s weird how we are just not open about the figure in art. Like, the figure in art is only exclusive to a certain space. It’s the same kind of situation that Laura Facey ran into.27
Jovanté Anderson: Ah, I was just about to ask you about Redemption Song.
Leasho Johnson: You just don’t want to see our bodies, because I guess there’s this trauma that comes with it, there’s this reason why people don’t want to see the black body being represented in a certain way and we’re very, very meticulous in terms of how it needs to be presented, it needs to be as representational as it can be. For us, that’s good. That’s when it’s accepted by everybody.
But yeah, the intent is to democratize it. I want everybody to enjoy art and I think, because, for me, it became such a tool for learning and understanding but then I realized that’s definitely one-sided. Let’s just say that if you’re going to do a piece of artwork that is supposed to have this activist-ic voice to it, don’t expect it to have an activist-ic voice when it goes in front of the audience because that can just get lost in its inception. It never translated and that’s something I had to kind of let go of and that’s why the transitions that I have been doing now are definitely geared towards me because a lot of the challenges that I had and voices or challenges that I was trying to overcome with the artwork was one-sided. It’s my problem, it’s my vision and I had this problem, and I mean, it’s almost like a weary attempt to do these things through art because really and truly, I think a lot of people who do art, for the sake of this thing, you have to give into the fact that it may not work, the way that you intended to work.
And so I feel if there’s anybody else that needs to get some fulfillment out of painting, or whatever, it had to be me first so that’s why the work is as it is now. I’m fulfilling myself and I’m trying to find space with it. And now, I don’t feel like I need to do as much to try to risk putting myself out there in that way. Because you may not get the response, you know, there’s just no fulfillment. It…
Jovanté Anderson: It can be disheartening?
Leasho Johnson: It can be disheartening but then it’s also, I’m not trying to make public art. In a way, I’m not trying to make public art. I’m trying to make public awareness through art and I think the recipe doesn’t work the same way. I was just thinking that there’s so much space for public art in Jamaica. And, you know, there isn’t enough. I think the powers that be just don’t see the value in it. But I just had to take it upon myself to try and fit in that space because I thought “here’s a space and it’s free and it gives you life,” especially for an urban setting. There’s a reason why cities invest in these things, but we haven’t done any form of major investment in street art.
Jovanté Anderson: Yeah, I don’t think the project itself was a failure, I think what comes with democratizing. It’s exactly what you’re talking about, you know? Lots of conflict, that is what democracy is like.
And so I think your project was a success in that way, because you know, in some ways it stirred conversations about sexuality up. I was there. I remember in 2015, I was one of those people who was like “what di hell is dis?” at first, and then I think it was Kimalea28 who said to me “um you didn’t get it.” I went back and I revisited my own feelings about it and realized it was brilliant. It created that space for conversation between us, that really reshaped how I thought about a lot of things! The painting itself, of course, but also about pleasure and slavery, and pleasure and dancehall, so in some ways, I do feel it was successful.
I don’t want to hold you for too much longer. Thank you, so much Leasho, for all that you have taught me today. I hope that we can continue to be in conversation even after this project.
Leasho Johnson: My pleasure, take care.
Jovante Anderson is a PhD student in English at the University of Miami. His dissertation explores queer and trans literary and cultural production that provide a capacious critique of how discourses of neoliberal freedom have been mobilized within postcolonial Jamaica. His work has appeared in PREELit, sx salon, and the Journal of West Indian Literature.