Artist: Jah’China De Leon Reimagining The Black Body in Illustration Art

There is nothing like feeling empowerment in the work of one’s self, and Jah’China De Leon feels the most empowered when it uplifts her peers, men, and women of color. “I feel like things of empowerment lie in just happiness,” she says with her bubbly personality on screen — our conversation was about the emotions she wants to provoke in her art.

Jah’China desires to beautify black life. She compels her audience to imagine a renaissance of the black body in renditions of paintings in the era of romantic and baroque art. She creates visual Art imagined in the lens of black representation — romanticism and iconography — a divine nature of superhuman characters, warriors, and angels that elicit nostalgia.

“FULLRED” by Jah’China De Leon

Her designs draw in whimsical detail and warm, vibrant pastel colors, animating the shape in how she characterizes different personas. Jah’China explores the geometric framework of illustration, which extends on prints the size of a postcard and plays organically with the shape painted on canvases. She says, “If it’s a circle with a triangle on top, that’s what works for the moment. Or if it’s three layers of oil paint, thick as hell. That’s what works for the moment,” she said with enthusiasm.

As experimentation with material surfaces, Jah’China reconstructed Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s famous oil painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring.” The painting is appropriated as a self-portrait illustration, a reflection of culture; as an artist, she self-reflects when she taps into her ancestral roots. “The culture that is influenced is not African, it’s Black culture; there’s a significant difference when a lot of artists focus on the Black body. The generic link to that is Africa, mother Africa’. I am using Black culture, which is especially different from other places,” she explains.

It later became a tangible fabric design, materialized into a large blanket, woven together on a weaving machine. The tapestry was featured at the Bronx Art collective in December of last year, during her residency at Joan Mitchell Foundation. The foundation is a supportive art collective organized by a female art practitioners council. They provide the necessary tools and space for an art community to learn, experiment and navigate the art business.

Art by Jah’China De Leon

In high school, exploring different art residencies — including musically inspired art workshops — was a significant turning point for Jah’China. She says she is grateful for these experiences. She wanted to be a fashion designer; however, after enrolling for four years, in the high school of fashion industries, she recalled her passion for art. She was admitted to Parsons for digital work in illustration, where Jah’China engages with costume design art.

Growing up in the Bronx played an instrumental role in nurturing Jah’China’s creativity as an artist. Her mother always encouraged her to sit down and draw; Jah’China found inspiration from her uncle’s comic book drawings, — marvel comic — she describes as hyper-realistic and cartoon-like. Together her mom and uncle were the pillars of Jah’China’s artistry. A common characteristic seen in her artwork is hereditary. “People do claim to see my face in it, which I always find funny because they always say that an artist’s face can be found in their work,” Jah’China admits. Her background inherits three Caribbean lineages; on her mother’s side, Jamaican and Guyanese, and her father is Panamanian.

Jah’China’s illustrations are adorned in tattoo patterns; her love for the abundance of tattoos satisfies her humble need for more. She conveys tattoos rooted in tribal culture, Caribbean, Native-American, and African.

Her first independent art show was in the Bronx at DreamYard. A round oil painting of a Black woman’s face, on an oval cut slab of foam board, surface, — foam-board — her face fills the frame, encompassed by an aura of flowers. Her hair is tied up with an afro-centric headband; her curly bangs frame her face. Her eyelids are glossy, and so are her eyes and lips, and her skin is vitiligo. The painting was sold three years ago to a young Black woman who customized it as a vanity mirror with round light bulbs.

Jah’China De Leon’s artwork finds a place in the Black community’s pride. It embraces the Black body with fantasy, imagining “Black life’s beauty presented and glorified ,” she states. This is an idea of how she approaches her art by expressing sexuality, power, and spirituality. Jah’China’s work illustrates Black imagery that is underrepresented in the genre of illustration. I asked Jah’China, how have illustrations evolved in Black communities? Her response was, “Black art and Black businesses are being heard more.

“Giant” by Jah’China De Leon

We are seeing all these Black illustrators come to light, a lot of people that weren’t of color were illustrating and getting props for it,” Jah’China says. The artist identifies as @sunny_mind_state on Instagram. Graphic designers and illustrators showed solidarity to support charities and funds for the Black Lives Matter movement since the summer of last year. Sharing social media links and resources, including articles and slides that non-people of color can use to educate themselves.

Enlarging her work digitally or by hand was challenging to grasp, with a professor’s idea to claim and embrace space. With the significance of height and stature, the figures dominate, space can be used to transport her audience, on a spiritual level.”It is bigger than life; you have to work with that.” Dimension became her friend when enlarging one of her artworks, “Gutter Flume.”

“Gutter Flume” by Jah’China De Leon

“Gutter Flume” illustrates two women standing over another. One woman is in a long dark green dress, with golden feathers printed, and she is pouring a vase of water over the head of the woman naked below her. They are entwined by their hair-like vines. The woman below has her head down, eyes closed, accepting the growth and life that’s flourishing. In Jah’China’s room, a blue wall with plants and vines hanging between a long vertical print — on polyester fabric. She says the title is a conjunction of two words; gutter reminds her of the term sometimes used to construe the hood, Flume, to surge water, “we are filled with water, it keeps us going without us knowing, it is one of the magical properties of this world,” she claims.

“REDGREGOR” by Jah’China De Leon

De Leon is inspired to explore the three-dimensional art realm of sculptural installations and set design. The world of her art can expand physically; this is the foundation of her thesis. She wants her artwork as a visual piece or ad in the train station, MTA bus, the bus stop — anywhere in everyday life. She wants people to find her art in ordinary places — wherever it makes a statement big or small.

After The Wake (podcast cover art) by Jah’China De Leon