In this time: Leasho Johnson

Deborah Anzinger introduces Jamaican artist Leasho Johnson

Attack (2010)Leasho Johnson. Photograph by Marlon James

Leasho Johnson carries his father’s artistic torch, and yet in his young career he has continually broken with the status quo of Jamaican art. In a small and traditionally conservative art scene, it takes certain savvy to do this without burning most bridges — a skill this ambitious artist has developed at age 28.

Raised in Sheffield, Westmoreland — Jamaica’s westernmost parish — Johnson was trained by his father in his early years, then moved to Kingston to attend the School of Visual Arts at Edna Manley College. “My father was an aspiring young artist,” Johnson has written, but “he eventually had to give up these dreams because of his family obligations.” This awareness — and Johnson’s subsequent desire to succeed in making his art viable in contemporary culture — dots his speech whenever he is asked what propels him forward.

Johnson — whose first name is pronounced LAY-sho — at first intended to pursue a career in commercial graphic design. But while studying at Edna Manley, he decided graphic design couldn’t convey the depth of information he felt a painting could. The tactility of the plastic arts was something he needed after all, and he ultimately explored painting, ceramics, and fashion design while becoming more interested in artists like Andy Warhol and the Taiwanese-American James Jean, who had traversed the lines of graphic design and fine art.

That mix of curiosity and persistent drive often leads an individual into uncharted territory. Soon Johnson found himself observing raw aspects of contemporary Jamaican culture — such as “daggering” in the dancehalls, and the loud, synthetic pop of ghetto youth — normally considered unpalatable and rejected by the Jamaican educated classes. These became his subjects, served up using meticulous techniques associated with traditional fine art. Now these elements of Jamaican culture are not only seen but also accepted and collected by a local art market generally touted as conservative.

Asked what is the most important part of his process, Johnson says it is “practice.” Working on multiple canvases at a time, he relishes the slow physical process of creating with his hands. He speaks of the small neon orange ceramic sculptures he is now known for: “My work is inspired by people around me. But they’re avatars, because of the impossibility for them to represent everyone.”

Ultimately, Johnson’s works are artifacts of our times: fractured, loud, synthetic, and yet nostalgic. His latest project is a series of paintings depicting transparent figures around a peeled banana. They are reflexive meditations on himself in relation to the loaded symbol of the banana crop. With his recognisably scrupulous brushstrokes and neon-meets-organic palette, he playfully confronts issues of gender identity, social stigma, and the legacy of history on our lived realities. “In the future,” he says, “when people look back at my work, I want it to be about people in this particular time.”