Art is an outward articulation but it is also an inward journey of growth and painstaking self exploration. Joanne Leah’s work is a raw, beautiful, candid blossoming of the artist. Although she no longer uses herself as a subject, Leah manages to weave an existential narrative that is relatable but still intimately her own. When you gaze upon her work you see yourself, the autonomous subject and the artist simultaneously. It is a unifying experience. But before this blissful coalescence, Leah had to find and familiarize herself with her own identity—not solely as a creative but as a creative who also happens to be a woman.
[Featured Illustration by Alannah Farrell]
Joanne Leah’s journey started in a small town at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Raised in Lynchburg, Virginia, Leah grew up amongst the guys. “There were about eight boys for every one girl. I remember being the only girl playing basketball with a bunch of boys,” says Leah. She was a tomboy, one of the guys. Leah openly admits to being somewhat detached from her femininity, “sexuality, femininity… we didn’t discuss those things in a Catholic household.” She also admits that she was not sure as to how to interact with other feminine energy; citing not only inexperience but insecurity, envy and competition as her drawbacks—but Leah sought to resolve her femininity and sexuality through her artwork. “In 2007, I bought a digital camera and started taking erotic self portraits as a way to escape an unhappy marriage… I had to experience many negative relationships to finally learn how to explore and reclaim my sexuality as a woman,” the artist reflects. This is where Leah’s journey took a brilliant turn.
Through thoughtful composition, Leah finds therapy and creative closure. Most of Leah’s portraits give the feel of a two dimensional sculpture but there is an undeniable note of action in her work. You do not feel like you are looking at a photograph, you feel like you are witnessing a happening, a transformation.
“With each image, I try to create a transcendent experience through a feeling of confinement and meditation, using composition, color, physical positioning and the tactile quality of the materials used. I like to use common objects in unexpected ways, objectifying the body so it appears confusing or broken and ultimately transforming the image into a symbol that is part of its own visual language.”
Although she has always been mused by the human form, photography was not Leah’s first medium of choice. She fostered an early love for Greek statues—particularly the Venus of Willendorf—and went on to study sculpture before moving into fashion design with the intent of creating wearable sculptures. Leah then also took photography classes where she learned how to document her work. “Back then digital photography wasn’t really a thing, I learned traditional film and darkroom printing techniques.” Eventually these creative skills started to intertwine in a way that would result in the works of art she creates today. These layers of accumulated knowledge are visible in Leah’s pieces.
There is something intrinsically striking about Joanne Leah’s photography. There is a taut strength in her images that holds her audience’s attention. Against a backdrop of bold hues, Leah skillfully composes her subjects—draping them with bubble tape, coating them with gold leaf or binding them in rope. Leah truly is a master of composition, allowing the subject to maintain their anonymity but arranging them in endearingly grotesque ways that still gives the subject a distinctive personality. Having felt “awkward and clumsy” in her body, Leah explains that she purposely excludes the subjects’ faces to create a space of trust, exploration and experimentation. When Leah’s subjects volunteer their bodies to be captured, they are knowingly losing themselves in a well wrought concept in which they will emerge anew. The practice of excluding identity is also a manifestation of her own body dysmorphia. “I had an intense growth spurt and was suddenly the tallest in my class. Throughout the rest of my childhood and adolescence, I struggled with some level of body dysmorphia and often fantasized about being someone else,” Leah confesses. Transmuting this vulnerability into pronounced, body positive artwork is no easy feat and is a testament to the resiliency of the artistic spirit.
Joanne Leah’s photographs are well staged statements. Underneath a leitmotif of playful nudity, the photographer provides some serious commentary on the psychology of sexuality, the variations of femininity and nefariousness of censorship. Leah is constantly poking the bear and challenging the unrealistic notions of body image and objectification. Fixed in a genderless gaze, she flirts with fetish and blurs the line between fine art and erotica. It is this tendency towards the taboo that gets Leah in hot water with social media censors but it is her clever response to the censorship that makes her an artist worth watching.
A lot of modern day artists find themselves marketing their work and personal brand online through social media; and for artists like Joanne Leah, whose themes are often considered to be risque, there is a constant game of cat and mouse at play. Leah frequently challenges social media bylaws while also examining our collective views on sexuality. She adapts without complying; she acknowledges her restrictions but she does not obey. Leah is the digital outlaw that everyone is rooting for.
Oddly enough, Leah’s interaction with censorship is a catalyst for her interaction with her own sexuality. The element of fetishism in her pieces is indicative of her observation of kink. Leah camouflages carnalities, arousing her audience’s senses through tongue-in-cheek abstraction.
“Censorship has forced me to confront my own sexual identity. Because of being constantly censored, it has become an integrated part of my artistic practice… I also play with the limits of the algorithms used to flag images seeing what I can get away with.”
Having recently given birth to a beautiful daughter, motherhood has made Leah even braver. “Motherhood has changed how I work but not the nature of my work. In many ways, being a mother has made me brave because I have no time to overthink decisions,” shares Leah. In the newest and latest chapter in her journey, Leah has also discovered a double standard in how female artists are perceived once they have children. “I wonder if a male artist would be asked a similar question? I feel that people in general seem to expect my work to change somehow because I had a baby. You never hear about male artists and how fatherhood has changed their work. Or even if they are fathers at all,” Leah points out. She continues, “when I was pregnant people assumed I would stop making my work because of the subject matter. It made me so mad.” The sentiment and accuracy of Leah’s testimony is hard to ignore. In a way, Leah is encountering yet another form of censorship. Nonetheless, she remains evasive and free.
Staying the course, Leah continues to war against censorship and sexist microaggressions by focusing on what matters—her artistry. “I think the more comfortable I am with myself the stronger my work becomes,” adds Leah. While the powers that be are attempting to put Leah in a box she continues to find her way out. She is currently expanding into collage making, deconstructing her previous works and violently transforming them into masterpieces reincarnated. Leah is embracing waves of rebirths, evolving before our very eyes—as an artist, as a woman and as an individual. Leah sums it up quite potently in her own words:
“I don’t often think about evolution. Sometimes it hits me that the work has evolved or I have evolved somehow. My photo-based work began with erotic self portraits that definitely played into the idea of the male gaze. I was in a very unhappy and abusive marriage and looking for a way out. I thought someone would see and rescue me. I was playing a part. I realized that no one could save me and I saved myself. Then I started working with other people. During that phase I was really trying to figure out who I was an artist. It has taken me years to find my voice and I feel like I’m constantly living in some kind of transitory or evolutionary state.”
In a state of perpetual metamorphosis, Leah is a galvanic creative whose work represents an inner dynamic that lies within all of us. Her photography feeds a need. A need to grow. A need to define and redefine one’s self. A need to embark on our own journey.
Akeem is our founder. A writer, poet, curator and profuse sweater, he is responsible for the curatorial direction and overall voice of Quiet Lunch. The Bronx native has read at venues such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, KGB Bar, Lovecraft and SHAG–with works published in Palabra Luminosas and LiVE MAG13. He has also curated solo and group exhibitions at numerous galleries in Chelsea, Harlem, Bushwick and Lower Manhattan.