Leasho Johnson

Caribbean Linked III for me was perfect timing and a great chance to focus on my work.

After the Jamaica Biennale I did not have the opportunity to engage in my personal work, balancing myself as a designer takes away time from me creating my personal art. CL III presented me with the opportunity to engage in my personal practice. I could reconnect with my work and connect with other talented artists who are on a similar path as I am. The opportunity to recharge myself, connect with other artists around from the region, while taking in new sites and cultures was a bonus. It was enlightening and refreshing because back home its very rare for me to witness the creative process of other artists up front till the point of exhibiting. Performance pieces from Natusha,  filmmaking by Leo Aguirre and Aiko Maya Roudette, glass blowing from Ciro and meticulous drawings from Simone Asia were all inspiring as much as intriguing to observe and to take part of.

 Aruba Experience

Aruba is very different from Jamaica. There are similarities such as beaches, the scorching sun, the invasion of tourists from the Americas and super sized hotels, which seem to be the familiar feature of caribbean territories. Despite these similarities, however, Aruba is a very different place, the faces and tongues spoken here are very unfamiliar, sometimes even intimidating but fascinating nevertheless. These same words can be used to describe my first encounter with Elvis Lopez – I was greeted at the airport by his 6 foot tall personality wearing pink and earrings. That moment is still the highlight of my 30 day stay in Aruba. His presence made it obvious that I was not in Jamaica and didn’t have to feel uncomfortable.

Aruba is the first Caribbean territory that I’ve visited from my own and it’s a dive in the deep end. The customs, taste in food, social etiquette and spoken language is totally different from home and I was loving it. Aruba gained full independence from The Kingdom of Netherlands in 1997, even though most of the early inhabitants were Dutch, most of the present population seem more Latin American. In local terms lots of “brown” people, this made me realize that my very small, polarized sample of what Caribbean folks looked like have been drastically expanded. Even though the “tone” dynamics of Aruba isn’t the same as in Jamaica, I had found comfort in a place that is less critical about complexion and sexual orientation… at least that’s what I thought.

Working in Aruba

Ateliers ’89 is a dream, the only free space in comparison is the Edna Manley College in size. As a space for professionals or beginners to practice, it’s a rare gem. Places that support local art after school are rare, almost non existent, it’s wonderful residing in the spacious studios and being housed by this space.

Working in a new country is challenging, it is even harder to find inspiration when you’re a couple hundred miles from your source. The residency was held in Oranjestad. This is the tourist part of the island, also referred to as the “white” part of the country because of the distribution of white residents and tourists that occupy that part. Here, the streets are very disciplined and street activities cease early at night. As an artist trying to use street art as a format it is a bit unconventional in these conditions. The streets and the buildings are well taken care of and I usually feel guilty for crossing that line . Plus no local street dance or dancehall being played for miles.

What I have discovered about myself though is that I seem to work better under a kind of pressure. Working here for me was like taking a deep sea fish to shallow waters. I’ve never had this much free time ever, my head exploded then reclined into laziness. I had no drive other than to hang out and talk and eat Elvis’ bread pudding. In Jamaica I’m so used to juggling multiple jobs and responsibilities that my enthusiasm to do my own work feels liberating. Its working here on CLIII that made me realize my ideal condition to produce work.

What I’ve learned doing this Residency

I’ve learnt that most of us artists on this residency share a similar intent with creating our art. One main reason is our search for an identity after the generation of post colonialism. All of our disciplines represent a way of us coping, almost carving out a space in the present for us to exist in the future. Where we can have equal rights as immigrants, or find a place in society where we have a voice that matters, or just coming to terms with ourselves.

Social uplifting was felt through works done by Aiko Maya Roudette, especially her video piece on indentured labourers protesting in the lobby of the the Guggenheim in New York city. She is also an educator back in her hometown in St Vincent & The Grenadines, where she does workshops in videography and painting. This showed me how one can become an artist through social activism. I also found lots of inspiration in meeting Ronald Cyrille form Guadalupe. His work came through wanting to find self value in a society that is disruptive and toxic to grow up in.

I’m also not sure if my peers are making a living off creating art. Making art to sell seems to become less and less a way of making a living. I want to say that art isn’t supported in the Caribbean as much as it relates to sales and so the concept of the starving artist still lingers over our heads in this field. I make a living by my day job as a graphic designer in Jamaica, that is how i support myself and my art. This I’m hoping doesn’t become a permanent feature of my way of life and practice… In fact, my residency here showed me there are other ways. Artists such as Annalee Davis, Holly Bynoe, Elvis Lopez and David Bates showed how art can be transcended into a “facilitator” ( fancy word for teaching). I’ve never considered myself to be a teacher, the thought of dealing with teenagers still gives me quivers but projects like the IBB in Curaçao had enlightened me. Instituto Buena Bista was started by David Bade, a successful modern contemporary artist based in Holland and Tirzo Martha.

“IBB, started in 2006 as an artists initiative with the goal to create a solid platform for art and art education.”

Like most initiatives they seek funding from other entities to survive, but in another light it is an example of art becoming transcended. it is no longer just about the object that is reserved for the rich but it’s a way for nurturing the the creative mind, moving it from a personal platform to a social one. Here art and artmaking in the Caribbean becomes social activism, contributing not just to the growth of the art community but an entity contributing to the social fibre of Caribbean communities. We need more…

What I’ve created during this Residency

I was expecting the space to affect my work, but in the end it was my work that had affected the space. I had started off trying to find things in Aruban culture that related to my usual course of interest, however, in the long run I decided to take what I had been using in my native space to contribute the this one.

Aruba is a place of many forms of culture and they seem to adapt a couple of them including some dancehall. I had the pleasure of hearing the Data Panik group play and they do incorporate some dancehall. Except there is no purely dancehall culture and very few knew about daggering. I took that as my opportunity to place some of my characters in the space.

Back home I’ve been creating works around floating bodies, both metaphorically and literally. I had started off exploring this from a earlier work called “Lost at Sea 2”.  Here I used floating bodies of men some naked and some clothed. The piece spoke about gender roles, homosexuality and social fragmentation through male identity. I had started to expand on this topic by looking at how the Caribbean is seen as “available bodies” both as a place seen for economical and sexual exploitation. I had lots of interest in sex tourism here in Jamaica and how that affects the ideology of the masculine in the dancehall space.

The time I spent here in Aruba showed how much the space and identity of Aruba had conformed to fit the ideals of tourism. Of course, every island has its own story as it relates to its origin and this ultimately contributes to its identity, I think the language Papiamento is a perfect example of this. A hybrid of already established tongues – Spanish, Dutch, French and touch of English all tangled to form one unique sounding version… that sounds a bit like the Caribbean space on a whole. Probably our newly emerging awareness as artists comes from these same forces that are affecting our environment and ultimately our identity.

Leasho Johnson – Promise Land from Leo Aguirre on Vimeo.

About Leasho:

Leasho Johnson was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica on December 5, 1984. He graduated from the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts in 2009 with a degree in Visual Communication. Social commentary is an integral part of his work. He believes the contradictions encountered while living in Jamaica need to be highlighted and explored. Johnson often juxtaposes cartoons with realistic imagery since the approachable nature of cartoons enables him to break down contentious, often disturbing issues and make them seem harmless, even comedic and in the end more palatable.