Even if you only have passing knowledge of the world of fine art, you’re likely familiar with Edgar Degas’ ubiquitous 19th century ballerinas. The French Impressionist painted the dancers so often, he became known for them. Although artist Leroy Campbell wasn’t inspired by Degas, viewers of his work will be struck by his partiality to painting his subjects, usually Black, in the seemingly anodyne act of reading. Viewed through the lens of Black diasporic history, though, that is significant apart from the way it distinguishes Campbell’s aesthetics.
Enslaved Africans of the Americas were denied by law the right to read for centuries. Africans who ended up being colonized often adopted educational systems in which schools were private and the cost of obtaining an education prohibitive for many. For Black people, reading was more than just acquiring knowledge.
“That was a big part of my life growing up,” Campbell said. “Our teachers were our heroes, you know. We didn’t want to fail them. When they gave us information with love, and when you give information with love and you teach how to learn with love, people are loyal.”
Indeed, Campbell’s affection and loyalty to his old school teachers and his Gullah community in South Carolina where he grew up bursts through in most of his paintings. “Of all the accolades I’ve received in my life,” he stated, “the most important ones are when you go back home and someone like Granny or a teacher who remembers me, and she’s looking at me and I see the pride in her eyes!”
Campbell’s latest exhibit at Brooklyn’s Richard Beavers Gallery displays this sentiment as well. Called “Working Together” and running through Jan. 5, it features paintings of his signature silhouetted figures all telegraphing the cheerful earnestness and dignified vulnerability often overlooked in depictions of Black life. Campbell says his aim is to use this exhibition “to show the kind of community and culture I grew up in.” He added, “This show demonstrates how we used our resources and our economics to help and empower each other.”
Like many artists of color, he sees his creativity in a multifaceted manner. It is work meant to enlighten but to also be a catalyst for progress.
“I’m starting with the theme of economics and the family to use that to promote the idea of using our resources for the betterment of our community and ourselves, and to bring about a healthier community of people,” he said.
Thirty-five years ago, as he went about his work as a nurse’s aide and orderly in a hospital, Campbell harbored dreams of becoming a painter like his idols Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. If it were just up to him, though, he might never have made the decision to become a full-fledged artist. It was through the support of his community that those dreams finally came to fruition.
He recalled, “I developed a community of friends who saw in me the energy, the same spirit that the Gullah, the grandmothers from my community could see. They encouraged me to do my art and go forward with it.”
The point of art in relation to the Black diasporic community Campbell believes is to “lift our humanity up.”
He said. “It’s to give us a sense of strength in terms of how to get up every day and move forward. Our art is necessary to our wholeness. Our art reflects the community and the historical aspect of who we are. It’s always helped us and it’s still helping us today.”
He also thinks it’s crucial that the Black community stay engaged with its culture. “One of the main things we have to remember,” he said, “is that we have to support our culture. And artwork is just as important a part of our culture as church.”
There are many avenues by which he feels we can reach this goal. “Parents exposing children to art is important,” he said. “Also, you could be just an investor. You could be a collector because you love how it makes you feel. You can rent out your art to museums and corporations and make money that way.”
Still, he cautions against looking at art as just a commodity. “We should never be into anything that we can’t use to empower,” he stressed.
When asked in quantitative terms, what supporting art would look like for the average person, he said, “Try to collect a minimum of 15 pieces of art each year. The plethora of art at multiple price points offers ample opportunities for people from all economic strata to buy art regularly.”
All of that should be done without a thought about space or storage. He advised, “You can donate and get a write-off. You can share art with someone who you want to cultivate, give it to others so you are promoting the artists, sell it on the secondary market. There are many fun, powerful ways to keep supporting art.”
Still, he was careful to reiterate that art should be loved for the spiritual uplift it provides, even if it is seen as an investment as well.
“It can’t just be about money,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous outlook, and you’re missing out on something more after the money is long gone—a value that will live for ever and ever.”