‘We Serve as a Mirror for White People’s Projections’: Watch Artist and Ex-Football Player Shaun Leonardo Revise Stereotypes of Black Athletes

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "New York Close Up" film, "Shaun Leonardo: The Freedom to Move." © Art21, Inc. 2021.

When artist Shaun Leonardo was 21, his football coach once tried to amp him up by saying: “I want you to play like they just let you out of Riker’s.”

That off-the-cuff remark has stuck with Leonardo ever since, and informed his multidisciplinary practice, which probes notions of identity foisted upon Black and brown people.

In an exclusive interview with Art21 as part of its “New York Close Up” series, the Queens-born Leonardo speaks frankly about his experiences as both an athlete and an artist of color, and how he came to understand his identity through the impressions others had of him.

“As a young man… you don’t have the wherewithal or the tools to absorb that in a healthy manner,” he says of the incident with his coach. “I’m 40 years old and I’m still thinking about that moment.”

Much of Leonardo’s work deals with societal expectations of masculinity associated with sports. At one point during the interview, the artist pantomimes punching an invisible opponent, as he does in his early video works El Conquistador vs. The Invisible Man (2006) and Bull in the Ring (2008).

“I was offering the spectacle of violence and that identity of hyper-masculinity and aggression that is so often anticipated from a Black body,” he says. “We move through the world and serve as a mirror for white people’s projections.”

 Still from "Bull in the Ring," 2008. Artwork courtesy: Shaun Leonardo. Archival media courtesy: Brad L. Cooper.

Still from Bull in the Ring (2008). Courtesy of Shaun Leonardo, archival media courtesy of Brad L. Cooper.

The artist recounts once seeing an image of Trayvon Martin and experiencing the recognition of how he, too, could be perceived by the outside world. That realization informed much of the drawings included in Leonardo’s new show, “The Breath of Empty Space,” at the Bronx Museum, which focuses on high-profile news stories about Black and brown men struggling with systemic violence, such as Martin, as well as lesser known incidents of police violence dating back to the 1970s.

When it comes to preconceived notions that white American have about their fellow Black and brown citizens, Leonardo says, “discovering and learning and finding ways to distort that image, to portray and feel deeply a fuller self that is not contained within these projections or these stereotypes. That has been my mandate.”

Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Extended Playbelow. The brand new 10th season of the show is available now at Art21.org. “Shaun Leonardo: The Breath of Empty Space” is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through May 30, 2021. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series like New York Close Up and Extended Play and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org

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