Leonardo Benzant’s exhibition calendar is filling fast. In June, his work Cosmology of Resistance appears in Africa’s Out, curated by Wangechi Mutu, which opens June 3 with an Afro-centric gala at Pioneer Works. In July, Benzant’s Koi No Yokan III is at 101 Exhibit Space in Los Angeles.
Inspired by his huge solo exhibition Afrosupernatural at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey and the online video images of the artist in his studio, I traveled to Richmond Hills, New York to visit Leonardo Benzant. His modest space about 5’ x 15’ is bright, light-filled, and organized into a library; supply stations for beads, paints, inks, powdered charcoal, coffee grinds, ashiote (seed dye), and other materials; drawing and paint studies on one wall, and a massive, completed sculpture on the facing wall. It serves as a good introduction to the worlds that the artist’s sculpture contains and represents.
I was originally drawn to the intimacy and scale of Benzant’s giant totems filled with secret sacred objects: human-sized forms with lumpy, irregular shapes composed of tiny beads and other handsewn or handmade pieces that suggest attention to detail at the molecular level. In a way that contrasts with Liza Lou’s concept-driven beadwork, Benzant’s objects reintroduce African concepts and spiritual roots into secular life.
Beings Born from Word and Stitch, 2007 is a mixed media work in the artist’s studio. It looks like a three-dimensional crazy quilt, but its construction is anything but straightforward. Mixed media works are sewn onto ropes hanging from a large dowel. “There are things inside the forms – symbolic, personal, coins, an affirmation. I’m playing with the idea that each form is a charm with a concealed and revealed aspect. Beings came after a series of paper collages whose tactile quality made me go more dimensional. From an African or African-Caribbean viewpoint, textiles and jewelry have a symbolic weight rather than being considered decorative. It’s not fashion but ideographic forms of writing that trigger memory,” the artist continued, “a complex web of interconnections between objects, temperaments, plants with healing or destructive properties – a language of a different paradigm.”
Another source of Beings Born from Word and Stitch is a Yoruba mask, Egungun, representing ancestors; it covers the entire body. Benzant also uses the Kongo term nkisi nkonde to refer to the spirit in which his art is created. An nkisi is “dealing with order, punishment, and justice in society and those who heal through nature. My art is not an nkisi; it functions between sacred and secular dimensions.” Since the nkisi is a kind of assemblage or collage, often using found objects, it predates Western notions of those practices such as Rauschenberg’s use of found objects in the 1950s combines. “You have to reference the dominant culture to validate something in your own roots that already exists by another name,” the artist points out. “Performance art, conceptual art, and installation art all existed earlier through another cultural lens.”
Benzant draws on his Afro-Dominican/Haitian-American heritage. The artist related, “I went to Catholic school all my life. We’d pray in the mornings to white Jesus Christ on a black cross. To this day, there’s so little you learn about your African heritage in school. Most of us have gone through the Westernization process and know we’re being assaulted – what they choose to put at the center of the story sends messages in so many ways. There was a big disconnect that made me hungry for things I could connect with – African culture, African art. I felt colonized; then I realized that there were Africanisms below the radar of the mainstream, in the community, on an altar, a reservoir of visual information. Part of Mongo Santamaria’s influences, which he found in Cuba, are Yoruba, Kongo, and Abkua rhythms. Africanisms are in the South as well as in Cuba; James Brown’s rhythms incorporate Kongo rhythms. The culture continues in Haiti and Brazil. People don’t make the connection. My journey is connecting all the dots.”
The artist’s library includes Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson’s book An Aesthetic of the Cool (Periscope, 2011), introduced by Lowery Stokes Sims, in which the author explores West and Central African and African-American notions of cool as “a mastery of the self” in relation to one’s heritage, community, and ancestors, including nuances of healing and rebirth, and deep thought before speech. The Thompson book discusses the concept of Kongo as having roots in Bunseki Fu-Kiau, a deceased leader of the Lemba Society in the Kongo. Thompson learned from Fu-Kiau about the Kongo cosmogram, and he has also shown how this has, in turn, influenced Vodou and Caribbean-American practices. Benzant also recommended Kongo Graphic Writing and Other Narratives of the Sign (Temple University Press, 2013) by Barbaro Martinez Ruiz.
 All quotes from Castro interview with Benzant on 4.18.16 and phone conversation on 5.1.16.
 Kongo refers to the Bakongo people who inhabit Cental Africa; when spelled with a C, Congo refers to the Belgian Congo. See Robert Farris Thompson’s 1983 book Flash of the Spirit for more on Kongo.