Shaun Leonardo was born in 1979 in Queens, New York, and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. He received his BA in visual arts from Bowdoin College in Maine and his MFA in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute. Through drawing, performance, and public participatory workshops, Leonardo explores the constraints of masculinity and the ways that systems of oppression and violence have crafted and contorted societal expectations of Black and Brown bodies.
In his work as a multidisciplinary artist, Leonardo is informed by his past experiences as an athlete and an educator; physical embodiment and community dialogue are key tools of his practice. In a series of early performance works titled El Conquistador vs. The Invisible Man (2006), Leonardo, dressed as a Mexican professional wrestler (luchador), fought an unseen opponent. In these works, the artist simultaneously critiqued the spectacle of violence, aggression, and hypermasculinity that has been imposed on Black and Brown bodies and put himself through a physically arduous process in order to make sense of his identity. For performances like I Can’t Breathe (2015–2018) and Primitive Games (2018), Leonardo engages audiences or participants from specific populations in movement workshops and nonverbal storytelling exercises as ways of working through conflict and empathizing with experiences outside of one’s own. In 2017, with the nonprofit organization Recess, Leonardo founded Assembly, an arts diversion program for court-involved youth. Guiding the young people in the program through visual-storytelling curricula, Leonardo utilizes art’s imaginative power to inspire participants to envision new possibilities for themselves.
“By being able to exist in your own body and understand that you do not need to be defined by an experience, it allows you to move forward with a little more sense of joy.”