It is raining relentlessly by the time I pull up to the studio of Xavier Laurent Leopold, better known artistically as Xavi Art.
Nestled in the heart of the Aylesbury Estate in South East London, Europe’s largest social housing complex, the studio is aloof and hard to locate amidst the towering grey blocks and the winding secret hallways and passages of the estate.
A brand-new bullet grey Porsche is parked outside, signaling that I am in the right location, however; the artist is yet to make an appearance.
A few minutes pass, and suddenly, a slim silhouette appears from an unassuming and unmarked entrance, waving energetically towards me with a huge pearly grin plastered on their face. As the figure approaches, paint splashed across their jeans, the hallmark of a working artist, I take a moment to assess my surroundings and the person I am about to encounter. The successful young city trader with a Porsche parked outside, or the budding artist who grew up a mile away on a nearby council estate with a keen passion for social issues that impact the community from which they hail?
I soon have my answer, as Xavier soon confides in me once we cross the threshold of his studio about how nervous his upcoming exhibition has him; the cool and calculated aura of a finance whiz is quickly replaced by the honest and open vulnerability of an artist.
I take in the studio, filled with art books on Mattise to Picasso, to history books on ancient Egyptian civilization. Xavier’s bold cubist portraits also take up the intimate space, and one piece, in particular, holds my attention and lures me in, a portrait of a rose rooted in a diamond buried deep in the earth.
As he speaks candidly about his influences and inspirations, I watch on and I sense how much of himself is poured onto this canvas. “Pressure makes diamonds,” he says as he recounts the significance of this piece and how his identity as a young black man growing up in inner-city London has informed the person he has become today. Successful, yes, but not without its trials and tribulations, and more relevant to the artist, trauma and heartache.
His upcoming exhibition, which ponders on the impact of mental health issues and trauma in the black community derives from personal experience and insight.
In 2010, the artist’s best friend, Rio McFarlane, was tragically killed in a drive-by shooting shortly after visiting the makeshift shrine of a friend who had been killed earlier that day. Dedicating his exhibition to his late friend on the 10th anniversary of his passing not only pays homage to his legacy but opens a much needed and frank conversation about the internalized trauma and violence that plague inner-city black communities and the need to raise awareness around mental health and wellbeing.
For Xavier, his artistic expression has played a significant role in his therapy, particularly during the outbreak of Covid-19 and the lockdown measures that were implemented globally. The introspection that came with the growing isolation of staying at home allowed him to explore issues that he cared about deeply but never had the time previously to unpack. Turning to a blank canvas and acrylic paints, in the space of a few months, he worked prolifically on depicting portraits that reflect everything from black female empowerment to liberation and excellence, culminating in his debut solo exhibition in London’s prestigious Oxo Tower Wharf gallery, also a mile away from his early council estate abode.
A trader turned artist, much like the controversial Paul Gauguin, the significance of Xavier’s work lies not only in the issues and themes he addresses in his portraits but also in his ability to step outside of his comfort zone and pursue a passion he has long harbored, a courageous act in itself.
By: Raphael K. Dapaah Art Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2020