According to Wikipedia, Lebo can refer to one of the following: Lebo, Kansas, a small town in the United States; Lebo M, South African composer of songs from The Lion King; Lebo Mathosa, South African singer; António Lebo Lebo, Angolan footballer; a derogatory ethnic slur for a person from Lebanon, especially a Lebanese Australian; or David LeBatard, Cuban-American cartoon artist.
While I’ve got no problems with Lebanese Australians (hell, before today I wasn’t even aware that there were such people), and I suppose a whole lotta cute can be said about The Lion King, for all I know Kansas is about as close as South Africa, insofar as what it means to me anyway. That leaves Miami’s own David LeBatard, better known as LEBO, whose ultra vivid scenery goes well beyond geography.
Calling LEBO a “Cuban American cartoon artist” though is a bit of an understatement. Yes, he’s Cuban American, and his art work does indeed possess some cartoon qualities. But to limit the definition of the cat to such little extent sells him short. Then again, LeBatard’s actual Wikipedia entry does go on to say he’s “a graphic and fine artist … best known for murals, live painting, and sculpture” and that he’s collaborated in various ways with the Beastie Boys, Bela Fleck, Phish, and Miami music-scene staple The Spam Allstars.
Perhaps the best way to describe or to define LEBO would be to say he knocks the proverbial wind outta the viewer with his paintings, injecting helium in its place. In other words, LEBO is a gas, gas, gas. Got doubts? Hit Design District-venue The Stage for its two-day 2nd Annual Soul Fest, where on Saturday night LEBO will painting live and sharing a stage with New Orleans Latin/Carribean/jazz/R&B fusion band The Iguanas.
In advance of the action, I talked to LEBO about his performance at The Stage, being knighted by the King of Rwanda, and his place in the Miami art scene.
Would you say you’re the four-letter word equivalent of Pop Art?
LEBO: I’m not huge into labels or being firm in defining one’s self — seems kind of rigid. I like the Toltec principle of always being skeptical, while keeping an open ear. I try to not limit myself by labeling my work as this or that. With that said, I have heard people refer to my work as “pop” at times, but I’ve devoted myself to cartoon art and abstract expressionism from the 1950s. I try to explore both worlds. Now my version of cartoons includes cave paintings, Asian pictographs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, among other ancient forms, so you’ll see that it’s pretty broad. Expressionism is pretty broad as well, which hopefully will allow me to continue this into my golden years.
How do you fit in with the Miami art scene, if indeed you fit in at all?
LEBO: I’m not sure where I fit in with the Miami art scene. I feel like when I was coming up [in the mid ’90s] there was a small but really amazing underground art and music culture brewing. My career kind of started then and was already up and running by the time Art Basel and all of that started. I’ve never really been part of any arts group either as I prefer to stay independent and hopefully split my work between collaborating with great companies/brands and keeping it at a level where people of all makes can have access and hopefully enjoy it. I can definitely say I feel grateful for feeling that I grew up along with the City of Miami and I feel deeply connected to its energy.
Where else in the world has your work been shown?
LEBO: My work has found a place in the Amazon basin, South Africa and Mozambique, Mexico City, Russia, Italy, Spain, England, and Alaska, among others places (mostly through private and corporate commissions). I think it’s funny because few people ever see a lot of the work I get hired to do because it’s for very specialized projects. I love it. I almost feel like I have an amazing passport to the world. I mean, a few years ago I was knighted by the King of Rwanda for some charity work I helped out with. How random is that? To be honest, I feel that my approach is to put art in as many places that I can. Galleries and museums are great, but I find it very humbling that my work has found a place in so many places beyond that world.
Word is there’s also a performance element to what you do — that so?
LEBO: Yes. The performance part of what I do is modeled after both improvisational jazz and martial arts. I love the idea of honing a craft and then letting it unravel organically, while sharing the experience with a room full of people. Plus, I can’t lie, it’s fun to get on stage every once in awhile.
Will we get to see some of that action this weekend at The Stage?
LEBO: Saturday night will definitely include that element. The Stage has been really supportive in helping me evolve the live stuff. Doing it with bands is amazing, but I’ve really moved away from that and prefer to work with Nicole Chirino to help me create a set list to paint to and Len Rowe, an amazing video projectionist, to create content to show that works with the music and painting I’ll be doing. I find that a lot more satisfying creatively and I love working with both of them.
During what we like to call a “LEBO Live!” performance, I work in tandem with a video performance artist (Len) to draw the audience in with a thoughtfully curated musical playlist. The VJ (Nicole) synchronizes the music to a video on a large projection screen. Simultaneously, I unify the aural and visual experience by creating continuous compositions on my canvas. Throughout the performance, you’ll see me recreate sequences of sound in time by laying down stylized lines combined with vivid palettes.
If you had but one sentence to hint at what’s in store for folks this weekend, what would it be?
LEBO: It’s a modern twist on soul. It can mean anything you want it to. Just bring yours!