18. LEON JOHNSON


18.  LEON JOHNSON 

        Azania, 1985, 18’ x 17’

Leon emigrated from Cape Town, South Africa, to the United States in 1979—two years after the murder of Steven Biko. Biko co-founded, in 1968, the South African Students’ Organization, an all-black group that resisted apartheid through political action. He later led the Black Consciousness Movement, which empowered and mobilized large segments of the urban black population. Adopting the rallying cry “Black man, you are on your own,” the movement’s activities eventually sparked the Soweto uprising in June 1976 when students marched to protest the compulsory use of the Afrikaans language in schools. After 176 people were killed, mainly by the South African Security Forces, unrest quickly spread throughout the country.

Photo © Camille Perrottet

Biko was arrested many times for his anti-apartheid work, the last time in August 1977 in Port Elizabeth, located at the southern tip of South Africa. The following month, Biko was found naked and shackled several miles away, in Pretoria. He died the following day from a brain hemorrhage, the result of injuries sustained while in police custody. The news of Biko’s death caused national outrage and protests. The police officers involved were questioned, but not charged. Two decades later, in 1997, five of them confessed to the murder at a hearing held by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

For Leon, “the murder of Biko defined the scale of my horror of the capacity for brutality of the white patriarchy.” In the mural, the white rose “represents the beauty of resistance and renewal.” It conveys the message “a system in collapse is a system moving forward.”

Azania—the mural’s title—is the name black African nationalists used, in the apartheid era, for South Africa. Today, many South African groups argue that the official name of South Africa should be Pan-African Republic of Azania.

Leon met Eva in early 1985 at Area X Gallery on East 10th Street where he was exhibiting paintings. “She was beaming enthusiasm and light,” he recalls. “She invited me to paint a mural in a project she was developing, and I agreed immediately. Her beautiful, furious spirit was evident and compelling. I had the image for the mural converge in my mind rather swiftly—a vision in many regards and, I felt, a gift to Eva— fire, a youth, roses…”


In 2014, Leon was a Martha Daniel Newell Distinguished Scholar at Georgia College and a Kresge Fellow in Film and Theater. A resident at the Wassaic Project in upstate NY, he and Audra Wolowiec published a book in late 2016. In early 2017, they co-published the first issue of a new annual zine, SKRYER. Leon currently lives in Detroit.


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