Leasho Johnson
Back-a-road [detail] (2014) at the National Gallery of Jamaica, Kingston, Jamaica.

Leasho Johnson

Leasho Johnson

Leasho Johnson was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1984. Since graduating with a BFA in Visual Communication at The Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica, in 2009, Johnson has participated in several local and international exhibitions.
In 2009, he was selected to participate in Rockstone & Bootheel: Contemporary West Indian Art at Real Art Ways in Connecticut, USA. The National Gallery of Jamaica subsequently selected him for the group exhibition Young Talent V in 2010. In 2011, he participated in Who More Sci-Fi Than Us, contemporary art from the Caribbean, a group exhibition at the Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort, The Netherlands. Johnson is a founding member of the Dirty Crayons collective, which began organizing bi-annual group exhibitions in 2012. In 2014, Johnson was selected as an artist in residence at Ateliers ‘89 in Oranjestad, Aruba, also participating in the residency’s Caribbean Linked III exhibition. That same year, he was also an invited panelist in the Caribbean Queer Visualities Symposium organized by Small Axe at Yale University, Connecticut, USA. Johnson’s most recent exhibition, Jamaica Routes, was held at the Punkt Ø Gallerie in Moss, Norway, in 2015. The exhibition was curated by Selene Wendt and paid homage to the Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall.



My experience of the residency in New York with Residency Unlimited (RU) was great on so many levels that it will definitely be a trip and time to remember.  With no time to be timid or apprehensive, the pace necessary for living in Manhattan was set to one which I was not accustom to.  Even my life in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, never prepared me for this and I felt that my small island way of life had no place there.  Even a recent trip to London could not compare to what New York had for me.

This adventure started with the place that I would call home for the three months stay.  It was a loft owned by John Bonafede.  This space was an oasis amongst the hectic streets of Manhattan.  John, who is an artist and painter, acquired the space in the late 80s, when as he said, “Manhattan’s streets were populated by drugs and prostitutes”.
The loft was a space of eclectic personalities including a Treky psychiatrist from Germany, a retired banker from California, a model from Texas.  The loft was also the setting for a tragic break up and a beautiful love story that involved immigration, European accents, chasing dreams in New York and Donald Trump.  I also found out that the loft was also the setting for an episode of MTV’s The Real World. 

The venue was perfect for going to the RU headquarters and my studio because it took 30 minutes - depending on the status of the subway at the time.  34th Street Pen station was an underground crossroad of hustle and bustle and really cool street music.  It took me an entire month to grasp the subway system, with sheer perseverance and Google maps as my aid.  However, on some days, this was not enough as I lacked the courage to venture out for fear of getting lost.  On the occasion when I did feel I was lost, an obvious landmark or even a tree would suffice to recall a path back to the oasis of the loft.  On a few occasions, I felt that going out was too much as I felt a sense of stress growing as I tried to reach meetings on time and not to get lost.  It was not until the latter part of November that I started to become accustom to travelling by subway, something that I will certainly miss.
The RU team were very warm and welcoming.  The team, though small in number, was exceedingly efficient and passionate about the work they did.  Since I was in contact with Boskvo Boskovisk in the run up to beginning the residency, I felt that I had a strong connection with him. He shared stories of his life since immigrating to New York that made me feel more at ease in the new surroundings.  Sebastian was another of those great people who made this residency a productive one.  He provided me with the resources I needed to create the works I made during my time there.
In the beginning of this residency, I could feel a slight felling of anxiety because it dawned on me that there seemed to be not much previous work with black artists, much less Caribbean ones.  So I took this opportunity to show that I am, not so different and I hope in the future, that the alumni of the residency will be more diverse, a reflection of New York itself.

An important reason to do this residency was the chance to do studio work.  A fulltime job in Jamaica doesn’t give me the time to create bodies of work I have been dreaming and planning for with the idea to have my first solo show as an artist.  So studio days were a dream come true.  Working all day in the studio was a luxury that I wasn’t able to afford back home and I intended to bask in it as much as I could during these three months of residency.  As one could imagine, I was not confined to just my studio or the loft.  Gallery hopping, studio visits and visiting the homes of collectors were all incorporated in the RU programme.
It is astonishing how many galleries are locates in the Chelsea district alone.  One of my favourites was the Gagosian Gallery on the Upper East Side which had a vast collection of impressive and inspiring artworks. What stood out for me was the Francis Bacon works and some by Murakami, on display in an exhibition theme of nudes.  This exhibition (collection) showcased works from major gold star artists with of course very high price points and security on every piece. At some point it started to feel like a bank and not a gallery. I really took pleasure in seeing these spaces but the urge was always to spend time in the studio.

Artistic Statement

Jamaican Dancehall culture is vibrant, dynamic and often times controversial. It is relevant to contemporary Jamaican youth and informs political, social and racial views in Jamaica. However, though Dancehall and its attitudes largely define the perception of Jamaican identity in the world at large, there is still a lack of understanding about this urban ideology. My current work attempts to elucidate both the hidden wildness within this aspect of Jamaican culture and my own place in society as a gay man from rural Jamaica. 

This work utilizes characters I’ve created, named Pum-Pum, that imitate and exaggerate male and female gender roles found in Jamaican Dancehall. My work is influenced by Street Art, cartoons and pop culture, as well as graphics. I juxtapose imagery grounded in traditional realism with stylistic cartoons, playing on the differences between the two styles, while utilizing various media and formats such as ceramics, mixed media, murals, street art, graphic design and found objects.