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Reflecting on the continent, more than 300 works later with Leonardo Drew

An antenna, absorbing the impact of his surroundings, Leonardo Drew converts the Global South’s plight into a display of our collective vigour and infallible joy. “It’s inescapable and I’m glad that I got it out there early, sort of like an exorcism. It still shows up though. No matter what I touch, what material I work with, inevitably it has that emotional punch that comes from us. It’s us. It’s our sensibility,” says Drew. In this week’s Re:View we consider why the artist is open to his practice being perceived as a futurism longing.

It was 1974. Leonardo Drew’s first ever presentation was in a group exhibition involving his peers. Describing his earliest works as direct interpretations of the DC and Marvel iterations he saw on television, this first exhibition is commemorated in a photograph where thirteen year old Drew stands next to a painting of Captain America, With a stern look on his face, the image was an unknowingly a premonition of the development of the practice that would follow.

There is no exhibition title for Leonardo’s debut presentation on the continent. An abstractionist with a practice just one year short of fifty, Drew makes tactile and textured artworks that are charged with historical, political and cultural knowing. Charged and not referencing our collective history outrightwardly, the space between the audience and the abstract may read like a barrier. But it isn’t. “There are places that only your imagination will get you to. As an artist, I need to get the hell out of the way for that to happen,” laughs Drew who very rarely punctuates his thoughts without a joke. The very reason Drew numbers, instead of titling his works this inaugural presentation at Goodman prompts projection. “The work isn’t complete until you have seen it. Why would I exclude you from being complicit in your own journey? You should be able to move in and out without having to confront me,” he insists.

Beginning in 1988 with the “mother and the monster” named Number 8, Drew’s open denouement style offers no definitive plot, setting, conflict, climax or resolution. “Seven years after I decided to stop drawing and painting, abstraction really became my thing,” he says recalling the series of events leading up to Number 8. A series of dead birds and critters entangled in rope, Drew refers to Number 8 as the visceral realisation that introduced him and the public to his voice.

More than 300 artworks, installations and interventions later, the works seen at Goodman live between Number 349 and Number 376. A guide of ambiguous cues, the only clue is the emergence and devlopment of characters, manifesting as the materials he uses. “I think once you find your voice you can pretty much work with any material. Your journey is going to come out in that material,” he insists. Spanning wood, calcium carbonate, paint, paper, sand and cotton, the narratives, possibilities and realisations of his abstractions require the public’s participation.

For example, the grids displayed in this presentation are influenced by the artist’s first trip to the continent in 1993 where he participated in the Dakar Biennial. “I had the opportunity to go to Gorée island to see (Maison des esclaves) where our ancestors began our journey of capture, enclosure, imprisonment, the boat and the next thing,” explains Drew. Almost an aerial view of a city, Drew’s grids are reminiscent overly populated, dense spaces. “That is a view reaching to escape the catacombs, projects, favelas, and townships,” he goes on.

A new link to the ever-growing chain that is Drew’s practice, the public’s response to the show in Johannesburg will then go on to exist as a research resource. Consequential; the last show always fulfills the next one in a way that speaks to the hereditary and generational nature of African and diasporic existence.

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