Lisa Gulesserian profiles Leonardo Benzant, one of three artists-in-residence at Galveston Artist Residency this year. His work will be exhibited alongside that of his fellow residents until July 22nd in the GAR Gallery (2521 Mechanic Street on the west side of Downtown Galveston). Photo: KalaLea
Before joining the Galveston Artist Residency this year, Leonardo Benzant was told in a divination that water would be in his future. The diviner’s reading came true when Leonardo applied for and won GAR’s residency competition—in the summer of 2016, Leonardo relocated from New York to Galveston with his wife, Lisa Shear, and his daughter, Maia. Since moving to the island with his family last year, Leonardo’s successes have come in waves. First, the US State Department acquired ten of his sculptures for an embassy in Chad. Then, a group show in Dubai featured a pair of his paintings. And then, just this month, GAR’s Artists-in-Residence Exhibition debuted his series of seven collage pieces. Leonardo achieved this steady flow through focused attention on his art and artistic philosophy.
Raised in a Dominican-Haitian household in Brooklyn, New York, where he attended a Catholic school, Leonardo fought to flow between different worlds without losing himself. One minute he might have been on the corner greeting his friend with “Yo, my man. What’s going on? What’s popping? Yeah, yeah, you know. We’re just chilling. Where’s the blunt?” while the next he would switch to Dominican Spanish to welcome another friend with “Oh, primo! Tanto tiempo. Qué loco!”
Leonardo’s self-described ability to “code switch” allowed him to analyze “moments where I’d be on the corner and I’d be thinking to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ because at the same time I had all these ambitions and all these dreams and all these aspirations that were part of my inner life that I never really allowed other people into that space and I would always protect.” For Leonardo, growing up “in a house that felt crowded,” growing up in a city where “I have to fight for space, I have to fight to be determined to go after the things that I want,” was challenging. Now that he’s relocated to Texas, the silence and space offer a different challenge. Galveston’s hush was “a little unnerving” at first “because it’s almost like somebody had turned the volume up on all my inner life.”
Harnessing the island’s quiet “to feel and reflect in ways that I had to fight to get” in New York has led Leonardo to new artistic ventures. Of the process to create the collages currently hanging in the GAR Gallery, Leonardo explains that “when I started putting these together, it was me just being open. And I was, in a way, terrified. I’m like, ‘Can I really depart a little bit from where I thought I wanted to go?’” The departure meant he would put aside the techniques he had used to create the three-dimensional sculptures of his previous series, Paraphernalia of the Urban Shaman: M5 (POTUS: M5). In Galveston, he thought he could continue “working with beads and fabric and things [as he had done with POTUS: M5]. And it just wasn’t flowing in a certain way.”
Instead, Leonardo began experimenting with paper and two-dimensional forms. He prepared paper by painting the pieces with acrylic paints, then smearing coffee grounds, bija (achiote, aka “powdered seed annatto”), powdered graphite, and powdered charcoal into the still-wet paint. Leonardo then cut the prepared paper into sharp shapes that he glued and overlapped to create seven collages that tower over most viewers when hung on the Gallery’s walls. These pieces, collectively titled Afrosupernatural: Entities and Archetypes, are the result of Leonardo’s self-described ability to go “where the spirit is calling you to go” and “to trust the flow.”
“Flow” is an appropriate word to use given Leonardo’s own descriptions of the inspiration for his latest pieces. As “I was making these pieces,” he explains while twirling shocks of hair, “I was connecting to a sort of ocean energy” he frequently felt during Galveston beach walks. The pieces curve in wave-like shapes, they echo “certain feminine spirits associated with water or with the ocean.” And by titling his pieces with names like La Sirena [The Siren] and The Maroon, Leonardo investigates the ambiguity of the ocean. To Leonardo, the water is “seductive and alluring, but it can be dangerous, it can be entrapping, it can be violent.” Even the parts that comprise the sensuous and curvy wholes point to this dual nature—overlapped sharp blade-like shapes make up the androgynous, hybrid forms.
An example of Leonardo’s prior work: Bambula, from 2014, made with multicolored beads, string, fabric. Photo: Leonardo Benzant
The undulating, aquatic outlines of Leonardo’s recent pieces echo his beliefs about the flow between tradition and adaptation. “The African concept of how the culture itself moves is a fluidity,” Leonardo insists. “There are all these books—ethnographic, anthropological books—that kind of describe [Africans] as repeating. But they weren’t repeating, they were always reinventing themselves, but they were always referencing a core principle.” Leonardo draws examples of impressive adaptations from music, visual art, and fashion. He is “touched” to learn that a traditional Kongo drum beat, zebola, emerges as a “parent rhythm” of beats in the African diaspora of the Americas and elsewhere. He celebrates the fact that the altar he arranges in his Galveston studio—to his ancestors as part of the Afro-Cuban religious practice of Palo Mayombe, Leonardo lights candles and offers liquor and seashells—can be considered a continuation of his ancestors’ creations of “assemblages before [the art concept of] assemblage.” He feels pride when seeing African-descended people like himself who “throw things together in the way we dress”—during his interview, Leonardo wears a busy blue-and-white patterned embroidered shirt with a riotous multicolored beaded necklace—because the “multiple patterns” reflect a “complex” heterogeneity and polychromaticism inherited from an eclectic African color sensibility. In other words, for Leonardo, “the core principle, the African culture, remains the same, but it has this tendency to change form.”
Leonardo quickly responds to critics who label his views “nostalgic” by arguing that “your connection to the ancestral world is not necessarily in conflict with being innovative at the same time. Tradition and innovation are not in conflict when you look at it from an African perspective, or African-centered perspective, because of this tendency of how there are these core things that continue but at the same time they emerge in new forms, fresh new forms, again and again and again.”
In Leonardo’s view, African culture flows through despite many blockages. When talking about the “retentions” and “resonances” of an African past in his present moment, Leonardo admits that “I get goosebumps! It’s crazy. It’s just a beautiful thing. You know why that touches me? Because you know, a lot of times, people think that we [descendants of African slaves] were so robbed of our culture, and so colonized that we didn’t…we have no connection. And that’s bullshit! And that makes me proud. We endured certain things. Even though we speak European vocabulary and colonizers’ vocabulary, there’s this rhythm and flow and spirit and syntax about how we communicate.” His words eddy and flow around a studio strewn with the makings of his latest creations.
Experience: Leonardo’s work will be exhibited at GAR alongside the work of his fellow Artists-in-Residence (Fidencio Fifield-Perez and Pat Palermo) from June 3rd to July 22nd. | Facebook Event Page
Five pieces from Leonardo’s Afrosupernatural: Entities and Archetypes series currently on display at GAR. Photo: GAR