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When the Soundboy Rules: Leasho Johnson's Solo Exhibition
In his first solo exhibition, Belasario and the Soundboy, Leasho Johnson draws a pulsating, drum and bass laden line between Jamaica’s colonial/plantation history, tourism and contemporary Jamaican sexuality as it is often uncovered in dancehall. In this metaphoric naming Johnson would become the soundboy, usually the upstart, but in this case he is far more of upsetter, the subversive, the noise that constantly disturbs the neighbour.
Belasario and the Soundboy is being staged by the visual art initiative, NLS, but away from their home base on Mountain View Avenue and is instead at 10A (West King’s House Road).
For those familiar with Mr. Johnson’s work, Belasario and the Soundboy continues an artistic narrative he has been pursuing for several years, but his witty and subversive comments on society remain as refreshing and insightful, as when he first started.
The exhibition operates on two levels: there are the mixed media works on the walls. In these pieces, Pum-Pum, Mr. Johnson’s artful female avatar, interrupts and disrupts the idyllic, slavery-distilled images of the 17th-century Jamaican artist Isaac Mendes Belisario. While none of the images includes Belisario’s famed Jonkunnu sketches, there is a beautiful masquerade taking place in several of these paintings.
In these images Pum-Pum strikes a pose as, or takes on the mask of, an ‘uptown girl’ as she reinterprets the celebrated images of photographer Brian Rosen, therefore raising questions of legitimacy. Although Mr. Rosen’s images were often sexually laden (featuring women in wet t-shirts or thongs), these images are viewed as acceptable and were often used on posters by the Jamaica Tourist Board to depict Jamaica as a place of sun, sand and other possibilities.
Under Mr. Johnson’s skilful fingers, when Rosen’s sexy Jamaica is superimposed on Belisario’s idyll, a contest of ideologies occurs, and a lusty conversation about Jamaican female sexuality, identity and their role in nation-building occurs, as in ‘Caribbean See / Coconut Palms’ women’s bodies become the island itself.
The second part of the exhibition, the ‘Cocktales and Pum-Pum’ series of mixed media on ceramic and glass bottles, ceramics and speakers, hold center-stage. The images are as potent as any of the spirits once housed inside the many bottles used in the installation.
Here, Pum-Pum, that ‘cunny jamma ooman’ (to quote Louise Bennett) whose neon orange outline is as provocative as her oft upturned rump holds court. She is depicted in numerous erotic poses, sometimes with a speaker where her vagina w/should be, or with a palm tree growing out of rump or her head. The bottles have conversations with pop culture, referencing music and moments in dancehall while all the time referencing the lineage of sugar and rum in the making of contemporary Jamaica.
The ‘one gallon’ on a bottle gets redefined as Pum-Pum does her go-go wine while other bottles declare: ‘The Good Hole’, ‘Gumption’, ‘John Crow Can’t Twerk Pon Sunday’ and a bottle hosting a Rapunzel-worthy hank of neon orange weave declares ‘Rae my Nephew’.
In a short interview, Johnson would point out that the Pum-Pum avatar embodies the voice of those who are often voiceless. She is a disruptive force, unmistakeable and undeniable. Pum-Pum is the Soundboy’s muse and her gyrations and contortions say as much.
But Mr. Johnson’s art constantly works on multiple levels, and therefore even while you cannot help but smile at her, these images interrogate and sometimes subvert the depiction of female sexuality in dancehall. Nothing is taken for granted and Pum-Pum is simultaneously object and subject though her salacious grin says she is never actually subjugated, even under the weight of a speaker box.
The exhibition opened on Saturday, February 4, and will run at 10A until February 17, 2017 (viewings can be made by appointment). Although it is technically a small exhibition (featuring 6 mixed media pieces on canvas) it is important to visit Belasario and the Soundboy with time on your hands. Time to peruse, to contemplate and possibly wire your jaw shut.