With an array of cultural influences and a stark perspective of the political history of the Americas, Lennon Jno-Baptiste is taking on the art world by force.

Words: Anna Graizbord
Images: Lennon Jno-Baptise

Caribbean-born painter Lennon Jno-Baptiste is interested in shattering ideas with images. More specifically, the repetition and re-contextualization of both familiar and historical images linked to deeply rooted ideologies. Unlike Warhol before him, Jno-Baptiste is more focused on the identity politics of African-Americans, blending history and pop culture imagery with a visceral and corporeal approach that is surely informed by his childhood in the Caribbean, teen years in New York and adulthood in Paris.

Jno-Baptiste says he’s always loved art and has had a sense of social consciousness from a young age. Growing up in the Caribbean, he and his family used to listen to public assembly radio programs, broadcasts in which politicians would directly and regularly address their populations. He says these programs really instilled in him a sense of connection between what was happening in politics and his daily life. To him, it seemed like “the politics of daily living [were] important to everyone.” After moving to the United States and going through middle and high school, Jno-Baptiste decided to study commercial art at CUNY’s New York Technical College.

On a class trip to the Whitney museum, Jno-Baptiste was particularly struck the first time he laid eyes on a Basquiat. Perhaps it was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s punkish sensibility, loose and dirty style, as well as an obviously similar geographical origin that inspired him. This, coupled with his growing disillusionment in working for an industry focused on the manipulation of people to consume, Jno-Baptiste turned to history to find inspiration for work he could call his own.

He started researching the origins of Africans and African-American culture throughout history, and became particularly interested in an image of a slave ship. Specifically, it was a hand-drawn diagram that was intended to show how human beings from Africa were to be arranged in order to be transported in the ship—an image that betrays the level of value placed on African men and women by a dominant European and American trade system integral to Western society at the time. This idea brought Jno-Baptise to historical figures and ideas that, to him, are exemplary of the ways in which White Europeans have established a hegemony at the expense of Black people to justify imperialism, as well as how those Black figures are also subversive and had agency in their own right. These figures included the Hottentot Venus aka Sarah Baartman, the Chickenman, as well as archetypes like the Black boxer.

All of these figures are recurring characters in Jno-Baptiste’s work, particularly because they are/were all of African origin and were in some way or another on display. The twist, however, is that Jno-Baptiste re-contextualizes them in either conventional or familiar scenery and situations, implying that not only did these historical figures have their own agency, but also to show how these archetypes are constructed in order to uphold and continue to inform dominant ideologies.

Makasi by Lennon Jno-Baptiste

Jno-Baptiste is interested in not only exposing the ideas behind these historical images, but also in making a parallel comparison with the hidden language in what we see every day as a society, in the media and all around us. Thematically, Jno-Baptiste is a bit reminiscent of Carrie Mae Weems or Kara Walker. Aside from a similarity in focus on Africans and African Americans, he says, these artists are all most concerned with the “visual power of images [and how they] can be easily manipulated.” One of the things, other than the medium, that sets Jno-Baptiste apart is that he really feels drawn into the physicality of getting into each of his pieces. He says that sometimes he feels particularly attracted to drawing because “…sometimes I need to draw and feel a surface…the paper, the canvas on the wall”—which really comes through in his work.

It’s no wonder then, that when he’s not painting, he’s hiking in the mountains of Switzerland and Austria, which are relatively close to where he lives now in Paris, especially being inspired by the green and sometimes white colors. Typically, however, he enjoys incorporating a lot of cartoon and Pop art colors in his work that are also partially inspired by his life in the Caribbean—a locale rich in brilliant natural colors. This unique blend of inspiration perhaps struck a chord with Parisians, as some of his drawings have recently been purchased by the City of Paris.

Other projects currently happening or that are in the works for Jno-Baptiste include a line of graphic print T-shirts available on his website, a few international shows, as well as a limited edition t-shirt collaboration with STARK—marking him as the very first artist to collaborate with the magazine. In true form, Jno-Baptiste’s topic or theme for the line is that of “Revolutionary Antagonist.” A percentage of the t-shirt sales will go to a charity of Jno Baptiste’s choice.

Images courtesy of Lennon Jno Baptiste.

Tags: , , , , , ,

More from the Stark staff