Leonardo Benzant

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What is my work about?

I create art connected in terms of a single vision emerging in various forms including: sculpture, painting and performance. Growing up in the 80’s, as Hip-Hop was flourishing, I felt an inner void prompted by the lack of an African-perspective in mainstream America. I began to investigate identity and spirituality. Being aware of the divide/conquer strategy of colonization, I initiated in my formative years during Catholic school, an investigation into African retentions, continuities and points of connection among the people of African descent throughout the African Diaspora for the purposes of healing, transformation and empowerment, both individual and communal.

Artist Statement

My practice is driven by my connection to the trans African-Atlantic diaspora. I recognize both my ties and disjunction from an ancestral past by considering the possibilities of genetic imprints, cultural identification, innate and intuitive beliefs and a conscious seeking of links that reveal continuities that are hidden or largely unsuspected by the mainstream. I imagine myself as an Urban Shaman exploring both my familiar visible world and the hidden dimensions of other realms that lurk beneath the surface of daily life. The sense of personal cosmology in my practice grows from both experiencing and observing the details of everyday life and ritual. Artworks emerge out of the crossroads of life, history, memory and imagination, a place between that suggest multiple layers of meaning. Inspiration is derived, in part, from the various modes of communication that I have studied and encountered in African-derived rituals.

My work includes painting, performance, sculpture, sound, and installation. I work from the inside out relying on intuitive decision-making and a commitment to investigating deeply personal experiences of identity, ancestry, family, community and spirituality. Information is drawn from the uniquely shared history of code switching, double-consciousness and multiple narratives that people of African descent have inherited and are compelled to adopt as a survival strategy for daily life. Like this common experience my work straddles two worlds. The art that I make does not exist solely within a Western art frame but embodies the dynamics of being both sacred and secular. At the same time I consistently look at western art historical constructions, modalities of thought and contemporary discourse to inform my practice while centering my work in community practices and rituals, drawing personal inspiration from the spirit and the oral traditions of the African ancestors that came across the Atlantic ocean during the middle passage slave trade.

Currently, I am developing three related but distinct series. Afrospanglish, a cycle of paintings that emerge from my series called Signatures. Afrospanglish explores and develops many of the original, ideographic, visual strategies of the Signatures series but also incorporates the idea of conflating personal cosmology and abstract-figuration that generate compositions characterized by large heads which function as conduits or metaphors for cultural/personal memory, inner-worlds, ancestors, spirits or universes akin to the cosmology of Bakongo-derived ritual charms known as nkisi. An nkisi, is an object said to be a miniatured world; a central ritual object that partakes of oral traditions, natural forces, ancestral spirits, divination and the ritual complex of the Bakongo. Concurrently in progress, is a mixed-media body of works with the working title Kalunga Inbetween Worlds (K7), which explores themes, materials and colors related to Kalunga (an ocean deity associated with the Bakongo people of Central Africa and who were brought into the New World in significant numbers). Also, an ongoing series of sculptures that I began in the summer of 2012, called Paraphernalia Of The Urban Shaman M:5 (POTUS M:5). These projects are connected conceptually but remain visually distinct through different choices in material, form and structure.

Within African cosmology, our ancestors live in both the past and the present this is central to my work as an artist. POTUS M:5 grew as a visceral response to various kinds of power-objects that I encountered studying Bakongo culture in particular minkisi and makutos. In August of 2010, I was initiated into the branch of Palo known as Briyumba. Also, March of 2014, I was initiated into the oldest house of Palo, belonging to the Mayombe branch: a ritual complex whose chief aim is to transform, heal, and harmonize individuals and families with nature, community, and the ancestors. As a result of my first initiation, I began creating an ongoing body of paintings that I refer to as Signatures inspired by the ideographic writing system I encountered in the ritual-context of both Mayombe and Briyumba ceremonies in NYC.

Education
Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY (2007- 2010)
Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York, NY (1996-1997)

Exhibitions/Performances
2015
Koi No Yokan III, 101 Exhibit Space, Los Angeles, CA curated by Dexter Wimberly (Upcoming).
Badass Art Man: Original Artwork Of Danny Simmons (coupled with items from his eclectic collection), African American Museum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
New American Sculpture, FiveMyles, Brooklyn, NY curated by Dexter Wimberly.
Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, Harvey B. Gantt Center, Charlotte, NC curated by Rehema Barber (currently on view).

2014
In Between Days, Driscoll Babcock Galleries, New York, NY Curated by Tess Schwab.
I Kan Do Dat, Contemporary Abstract Art, Rush Arts Gallery, New York, NY curated by Danny Simmons and Oshun Layne.
Bridging Boundaries: Redefining Diaspora Part I, Postscrypt Gallery Columbia University, New York, NY.
Bridging Boundaries Redefining Diaspora Part II, Aloft Hotel Gallery, New York, NY curated by Leanne Stella.
Curatorial Salon, Leonardo Benzant, Derek Fordjour, Duhirwe Rushemeza, Tikhonova & Wintner Fine Art, New York, NY.
Performance Collaboration with Lisa Shears, Maia Estelle Benzant-Perez and Aixa Kendrick: The Trinity, Tikhonova & Wintner Fine Art, New York, NY.

Artist Talks and Lectures
2014
Honorarium/Artist Lecture Series, MICA, Maryland Institute College of Art. (upcoming)
Across Generations: African-Americanisms in Contemporary Art. Moderated by Dexter Wimberly, Tikhonova & Wintner Fine Art, New York, NY.
THE SACRED AND THE SURREAL: THE ROLE OF SPIRITUALITY IN ABSTRACT ART, Danny Simmons Jr. Panel Discussion, moderator: Sherman Fleming.
Edge Art: Black Latino (a) Artists, An Inter-Caribbean Dialogue, 3rd. Annual Black Studies Fine Art Exhibition of Contemporary
Black/Afro-Latino (a) Artists From Around
The Western Atlantic World, Cohen Library Archives Gallery, New York, NY.

Bibliography
Benjamin Sutton, “Surveying Surveys Of New American Sculpture”, Hyperallergichttp://hyperallergic.com/…/surveying-surveys-of-new-americ…/
Ryan Wong, “Younger Americans At Driscoll Babcock”, ARTSlant New York, http://www.artslant.com/ny/articles/show/40309
Sasha Dees, “Leonardo Benzant”, Africanah.Org, Arena For Contemporary African, African-American And Caribbean Art.
Perree, Rob. “The Quirky Work of Leonardo Benzant,” Weblog. SrananArt.wordpress.com/2013/02/sax-7-english-edition-feb13.pdf
Davis, Kathy. “Interview with Leonardo Benzant.” WBAI. November 26,2012.
Eichacker, Charles. “Advancing Uptown Arts Renaissance, Pop-Up Gallery Spotlights
African Beauty and Brutality,” http://archives.jrn.columbia.edu/2012-2013/theuptowner.org/2012/11/13/advancing-uptown-arts-renaissance-pop-up-galleryspotlights-african-beauty-and-brutality/index.html

Private Collections
Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Washington DC
Lazane Jobe, Los Angeles, CA
Vivian Hewitt, New York, NY
Stanley Gleaton, New York, NY
Other works held in private collections in the United States and the Dominican Republic