In his first retrospective currently on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, artist LeRoi Johnson invites folks to view a collection of works that embrace his experiences as a Black American. Inspired by his surroundings and global perspectives, Johnson explores narratives in identity, social justice and Afrocentrism to create works that are “Living in Color.” We caught up with Johnson to learn more about his exhibition and inspirations behind his artistry.
VIDEO: Intro of LEROI: Living in Color
Q: Hi LeRoi, can you tell us more about yourself and how you became engaged in the arts?
A: I have been involved in some form since I was at least five years old. I became formally involved in the 70’s when I lived in Paris. I spent most of my time there visiting museums and galleries for no specific purpose except to see art. While in Washington, D.C. working with arts organizations such as the Corcoran, African Arts Museum and others on the formation of the City Museum.
Q: Your exhibition at the Burchfield Penney, LEROI: Living in Color is currently on view, what is the inspiration behind this collection of work?
A: The inspiration is to show my hometown work which has been exhibited around the world and to show work which has never been shown. My personal inspiration is to heighten the visibility of Afrocentric art through art and the various periods which represent my experience.
Q: You describe your work as “electric primitive,” can you expand further on what that phrase means to you and discuss some of the themes that are central to your exhibition or artistry?
A: This is a term I coined that expresses today’s power of color (it’s electric) and the term “primitive” both represent simplicity of an untrained artist exploring Afrocentrism.
Q: How has your artistic style evolved over the years? What has changed from when you first started to where you are now?
A: Yes, but not much. I find my earlier work more anecdotal and complex. My focus lately has been on form, lines and figurative representations. I think now more than ever about meaning and conveying thought.
Q: In recent years the fine art world has been criticized for its lack of diversity, what does being a person of color in the art world mean to you?
A: It means not only promoting a diverse world of art, but that it is also inclusive of diversity. I have always painted to fill the void of the lack of Afrocentricity in my world that extends to the world outside. Museums have always promoted western art to the exclusion of others. The challenge is to make immediate and lasting changes. Being present in exhibitions, boards and administrations in meaningful ways helps to foster change for me.
Q: Can you elaborate more about your collaboration with students from the Buffalo region and their contribution to your exhibition? What makes this an important feature to your exhibition?
A: This collaboration is the result of both the interest of the Burchfield Penney and my own long-time work with young people. Our joint vision was to give the students a meaningful experience in art which goes beyond just doing an art display, but a total art experience. The collaboration gave students a hands-on experience with museums, artists and components of the art world.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for emerging artists that are currently developing their artistic voice and careers?
A: Yes, stay true to your own creative vision. Develop your own style and work hard. When you think you have something special, see if you can reach deeper and deeper.
Q: What do you hope folks take away from your exhibition, LEROI: Living in Color?
A: That the color of one’s skin does not define the value of his work. That the color of an artist doesn’t define his soul. The exhibition represents many years of work from many different periods in my life.
Q: Seeing that the current exhibition is a retrospective of your body of work, this leads me to ask about your legacy as an artist.
How do you want to be remembered?
LEROI: Living in Color is currently on view at the Burchfield Penney Art Center through March 26. Click here for admission hours and additional information.