“Becoming an adult I had different experiences and encounters that made me start opening up for my ancestry. It was the beginning of what probably will be a life long research into my ancestry and African Diasporic culture. I read many books, essays, and articles, listened to music, went to performances, lectures and met with different people that became short and long term mentors, a continuous learning curve. Finding Palo and its community felt like I came home, it made sense to me, it gave me freedom. Palo fills me with a positive energy and empowers me to be who I am.”
Sasha Dees interviews the New York based artist Leonardo Benzant.
Leonardo Benzant: The Artist-Shaman
“My practice is driven by an ongoing fascination and involvement with retentions and continuities in the African-Atlantic world. I work in a multidisciplinary way which includes: painting, performance, sculpture and sound. I find inspiration from the various modes of communication that one encounters in African-derived rituals. The work seems to emerge out of the crossroads of life, history, memory and imagination; a place between many worlds that suggest many layers of meaning. I work from the inside-out in an intuitive manner that is very personal. I’m engaged in an exploration of identity, ancestry, family, community and spirituality. Also, I investigate and draw information from the code-switching-tendencies, of simultaneous multiple narratives, and the double-consciousness that people of African descent have inherited from their shared history. My practice involves the study of Western Art History, while centered in community practices and rituals that allow me to draw personal inspiration from the spirit and oral traditions of the ancestors. The art that I make does not exist solely within a Western art frame but embodies the dynamics of being both sacred and secular.”
Why art? Why an artist?
As a boy I was always observing and drawing, I would look outside the window and take in what I saw and just draw, constantly, people, trees, buildings …it came natural to me. Only towards the end of High school I realized that being an artist and work in art is something you can be, and do, for a living. I got involved in theatre, film, performance, and writing and loved having all these different disciplines to express myself with. Next to the more per formative arts I always kept drawing, big colorful figurative drawings, that in the western coding could be considered magic realism – he smiles, – very different from what I make today.
You got initiated in Palo, how has this influenced and changed your work?
Growing up in Brooklyn I was brought up in a Western and Christian context. However even as a little boy, I felt that something was missing, a slight feeling of discomfort, but not really understanding what that was or meant. Becoming an adult I had different experiences and encounters that made me start opening up for my ancestry. It was the beginning of what probably will be a life long research into my ancestry and African Diasporic culture. I read many books, essays, and articles, listened to music, went to performances, lectures and met with different people that became short and long term mentors, a continuous learning curve. Finding Palo and its community felt like I came home, it made sense to me, it gave me freedom. Palo fills me with a positive energy and empowers me to be who I am. After being initiated, I was given occult knowledge partly in the form of “firmas”, which are the signs used to identify or invoke the ancient Kongo spirits. That brought a shift in my work and I started making the body of work called “Signatures” like the Memoria Kongo the work that can be seen in the Columbia University show this coming month.
Memoria Kongo, 2013.
Palo involves transcendent dimensions of experience achieved through dance, percussion, incantation and divination. Palo gave me the permission to become the artist I am today. It gives me tools and knowledge that I combine with my dreams and visions and blend into my artworks.
You describe yourself as an Artist-Shaman, is there a healing aspect to your work?
Working on my art has definitely been a healing process for me. While making my art, I open myself to my ancestry and channel the energy and knowledge that I experience and is given to me through making my work. I hope to translate and transform that to the viewer in different ways but that said it is not a necessity for me to know that happens to continue making my work. I want to believe however that my work radiate my energy and will always be perceived as more then just astatically pleasing to the eye. My works evoke the viewer to feel, think about, question and research the works and its context. The healing power is there for those who need it and are open to feel it. My work always has many different layers, how many layers of the work the viewer can see and/or experience is personal to them and that’s how I feel it should be. It also depends on the knowledge and/or the curiosity the viewer has of the context in which my work is made, where it gets its meaning and energy from.
You use different media in your work, how is this related to your artistic/spiritual process?
In the African Diasporic tradition it’s common to use different media and forms to tell your story. Western art tradition seems to be more compartmentalized and constrained. As Palo gave me permission to be the artist I am it therefore gave me permission to use all that is available to me. I use a wide range of disciplines like visual arts, performance arts and text. Within the visual arts I like to use mixed media as it gives me more ways to communicate with my work. Another important aspect in my work is color; I tend to emphasize rhythm and patterns as associated with the temperament of spiritual entities, forces of nature and temperature as a color theory construct that differs from the traditional Western color theories which tend to emphasize value/gradation in a way that resonates with European classical music. The African mode traditionally tends to emphasize rhythmic and percussive complexity. Furthermore although I make the works mostly by myself, the creative process is always collaborative on a spiritual level using energy that is channeled through you as well as on a more actual level, right now my family is involved in the bead stringing for my works. I like the work to be communal and would favor to be able to involve more people in the process once I more set up for that.
You have two shows in NY at the moment, what influences the works in those shows and what do these works tell us?
The works on view are an example of me exploring contemporary abstraction through drawing, painting, collage, assemblage, sculpture, and performance. Channeling and translating my cultural and spiritual context the works are both universal and have personal meaning. At Columbia University I’m showing Memoria Kongo a work from the Signature series. Palo gave me occult knowledge in part in the form of “firmas”, which are the signs and symbols used to identify and invoke the ancient Congo spirits of Mayombe. In this work Memoria Kongo I interpret and invent signs and motifs, creating organic and rhythmic compositions which are original yet culturally resonant. This installation grew from a visceral response to various kinds of Bakongo-derived charms and power-objects known as minkisi.
In Skylight Gallery at Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration I’m exhibiting the installation POTUS M:5 – Paraphernalia of the Urban Shaman M:5 (installation). The installation, Paraphernalia of an Urban Shaman M-5 (POTUS M:5), is comprised of sculptures that began to emerge in the summer of 2012. Within African cosmology, the ancestors live in both past and present and are central to my work as an artist. This installation grew from a visceral response to various kinds of Bakongo-derived charms and power-objects known as minkisi.
What can we expect from you in the coming year that you are excited about?
I’m in conversation with a curator about a solo show later in the year. I will be given the possibility to work with all media and disciplines. I will show two and three dimensional works, mixed media works, but also include sound and performance. I’m very excited about that as it would show the full range of my work and it is how I prefer to express myself.
Leonardo Benzant Seeing his artistic ability, Benzants parents encouraged him since a young age to discover his creative talents. For over 25 years, Benzant has been making art, before entering the academic world and majoring in Fine Art at Pratt Institute. The multidisciplinary artist has also been enriched by numerous mentors and classes including: collage, drawing, painting, vocalization, writing and theatre arts. Benzant has been featured in several group shows including I Kan Do Dat at Skylight Gallery @ Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration, Art Speaks at Art In FLUX Harlem, Hip-Hop Abstract Visions, Fabric And Rhythm, and UNCF ”The Art Of Giving Back. In 2002, he co-wrote and co-starred in the film called Muela, which was featured at the L.A. International Short Film Festival and international festivals. Benzant sees himself as an artist-shaman whose role is to bridge and navigate between worlds, between cultural paradigms, between past and present and between the visible and the invisible worlds. His practice celebrates and investigates issues of history, identity and spirituality. He is currently developing performance and two series simultaneously, one of which is called Signatures and the other is called Paraphernalia of the Urban Shaman (POTUS M:5) informed by Western Art history, contemporary art-making practices, ethnography, initiation, oral traditions and rituals and cultural continuities of the African-Atlantic and particularly the Kongo-derived tradition known as Palo Mayombe.
Brief bio: Sasha Dees is an international cultural producer and curator. Sasha is currently producing the art films: My American Dream (USA) and Witte Dieren (Russia), guest curator for Centrum voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, advisor to the Mondrian Foundation (NL) for projects in USA, Suriname and Antilles, visiting curator for Residency Unlimited (NY), juror for Akrai Residency (Italy), editor -with Rob Perrée- of the planned publication “I wonder if they’ll laugh when I’m dead” on Tirzo Martha (Curacao) and freelance contributor to Africanah.org and ARC Magazine.