Words by Chelcie Porter
While in New York, POTENT met up with visual artist Leonardo Benzant at a tiny diner in Crown Heights to talk about art, life, and how to stay true to being a Caribbean-American artist in the big, bad, art world.
Upon first glance, his recent sculptural pieces from the series “Paraphernalia of the Urban Shaman M:5 (POTUS M:5)” stop you dead in your tracks and demand you take a second look. These large sculptural pieces are tribal and ritualistic. Thousands of colorful beads wrapped around forms that sometimes are similar to walking sticks and skulls, and other times resembling creatures with tentacles. When asked what they mean, Benzant replies: “I’d rather you tell me what they mean. It doesn’t matter what they mean to me. I mean it does, but not really. It’s what they mean to you. That’s there for you to take; it’s yours.”
Leonardo Benzant is tall and thin, with an air about him that is both relaxed yet intentional. Born and raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn, the Caribbean-American artist has roots in both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Both of his parents were immigrants and only Spanish was spoken in his household, leaving him to not learn English until he went to kindergarten. Benzant attributes this to his current love of books and language, and when speaking he is both articulate and verbose.
Being of both Haitian and Dominican descent is not something that is commonly heard or acknowledged in most Caribbean communities. Although the countries share an island, they are closer to rivals than friendly neighbors. About 90% of the Dominican Republic has African ancestry in the most recent census, but only a little more that 4% claim it, with the majority claiming to be indio, an indigenous person native to the Americas.
“Often I feel that most Dominicans don’t have a sense of a black identity. They don’t associate with being black or of African descent. Even though clearly it’s there, but they will call themselves indio, instead of black.” Benzant says.
Hearing blackness referred to as something “ugly” and “lesser than” was an early experience in his life. Having Haitian ancestry on his mother’s side, Benzant didn’t subscribe to the general disdain many Dominicans feel toward Haitians and African culture and refused to subscribe to this form of thinking.
He struggles when trying to describe how he became an artist. For him, it’s as difficult of a question to answer as how he became a man. “I became aware of myself as having a different way of life and experiencing things. I always felt, like I didn’t fit in,” he says. “That’s a state of mind that I associate with the artistic temperament.”
Slowly art began to find its way into Benzant’s life through the books and magazines of an Ecuadorian uncle. He began by training himself to draw what he saw. His first drawings were copies of comic book figures. Surreal and geometric watercolors of mythical creatures and fetuses came later. His father would take him to Pratt Institute to classes in art and collage, and his family was always supportive of his artistic endeavors.
Benzant affectionately remembers his early works on paper. He recalls a particular portrait inspired by his first girlfriend and muse, Jessie. “It was like a portrait of her, in a short dress. A very sexy, formfitting, short dress. She had her hair short, cropped, natural…yeah…”
His first inspirations may have been mythical creatures and girlfriends, but his current work is more deeply tied to his culture. Benzant has taken an untraditional yet successful approach to his education and ironically, Pratt Institute has been in and out of his life since youth.
After high school, he enrolled in Pratt Institute only to decide to drop out in the first semester. In a culture where being African is deemed undesirable, Benzant had no intentions of committing to a westernized education system that may tell him the same thing. Desperate to hold on to his roots and culture, he sought out mentors and teachers in his community. African religions like Palo Myombe, Briyumba and Yoruba helped Benzant to gain a deeper perspective on himself and his place in the world.
Benzant later enrolled in Pratt again in his 30s, not to learn to make art but to be able to teach. He gives very little credit to formal education for his success and development as an artist. “My training is varied. I look at my training as how I’ve lived my life. My experiences in life really informed my perspective and vision.” Benzant is now a multidisciplinary artist with backgrounds in theater, performance, sound, painting and sculpture.
When asked about his plans, Benzant gives no concrete answer. “I plan to continue creating and being open to my creative impulses.” Continually producing artwork is his only focus. “We enjoy the fruits of our labor in the right season.”
His work, “Paraphernalia of the Urban Shaman M:5 (POTUS M:5)” recently closed at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn, New York, however you can still catch his work at the exhibition, “Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness” at the Harvey B Ganntt Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. In September, Benzant will be exhibiting at Koi No Yokan III, 101 Exhibit Space, Los Angeles, CA in an exhibition curated by Dexter Wimberly.