'Leonilson's production always involved the search for poetic intensity, each expressive medium, each support bears its own specifity and independence. The relationship among them is established by the ethics of the artist's project in handling the expressive media and his engagement in a program of work where the language is informed by tradition and the artistic expression of the individual-turned artist.' (B. Gancia in 'A Visionary Body, A Visible Body' in José Leonilson (ed.), José Leonilson: Use, Elindo, En Garanto, Portugual, 1997, pp. 225-226.
O Africano (1984) is a monumental painting which issues from the early period of the celebrated Brazilian artist, José Leonilson. In stylistic terms, this powerful work articulates a vitality and confidence which provides a poignant contrast to the intimately melancholic works produced by the artist just before his untimely death to AIDS in the early nineties. As such, O Africano operates as a visual testimony to the effervescent decade of the 1980s, both in Brazilian culture and in Leonilson's personal life. However, it also embodies a certain symbolic and spiritual significance which gestures towards Leonilson's acute sensibility to the place of the physical body within culture, and its interrelation with the mind as a perceptive instrument for interior and exterior truth.
Born in 1957, Leonilson grew up in São Paulo, Brazil. From a young age he demonstrated a natural affinity to art, and during the period 1983-1988, he began producing large expressive paintings which were principally influenced by the Transavantgardia group. This Italian founded art movement came to prominence in the 1980s, and crucially rejected Post-War conceptualism with its progressive detachment from subjectivity. In accordance with this expressionist group, Leonilson sought to intervene by reintroducing emotion and human experience back into painting and sculpture; restoring myth, mystery and magic to the fabric of contemporary art.
Rhythmically puncturing the canvas with stark, angular shapes, Leonilson in O Africano draws upon African art and textile design to invoke the pulsating vibrancy Afro-Brazilian culture. Amongst the patchwork of abstract forms, discernable objects such as the bongo drum and sand dollar refer to the traditions of African music and religion with its associated mysticism. In particular, O Africano alludes to Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian polytheistic religion in which adherents can have their fortunes divined through seashells, and even be bodily possessed by the African gods during ritualistic ceremonies involving singing, chanting and dance.
O Africano exults in a primal, symbolic energy which references the body and beyond by implementing an evocative language of signs. The three cat-like pairs of eyes, which stare out unblinkingly from the canvas, echo the design upon the drum, yet nonetheless denote dematerialized human form which dissolves disconcertingly into the intangible darkness.
Leonilson's later works are characterized by a turn away from grand large scale paintings towards a concern for embroidery, sewn clothing, and small scale works on paper. After discovering that he was HIV positive in 1991, an atmosphere of vulnerability begins to permeate Leonilson's work. His final phase takes on that of an intimately personal narrative, becoming a kind of diary which paradoxically documents the dissolution of the human person towards absence and space. In these sensitive and tactile pieces, he resists expressing a bodily, human experience of the world beyond, but rather emphasizes the absence or ephemeral nature of human presence. Empty clothing, or personal accumulations become silent objects of contemplation, in which the spectator is invited to consider their own sensory cognition. The effect is much like the work of fellow Brazilian artist Lygia Clark articulated through her Body Nostalgia series.
O Africano acts as a homage to the African roots of Brazilian identity, expressing the dynamism and mysticism of a cultural heritage which unlocks the secrets of the world through bodily perception and its natural objects. It conveys a belief in the vitality of human experience perceived from without, before the turn to the loss and interiority and of his later work.