Leal is a young illustrator and street artist from Johannesburg currently residing in Cape Town. Their choice of subject matter varies to encompass topics including human trafficking, marginalised bodies, their girlfriend Boni, their experiences as a person who identifies as queer, as well as gentrification within Cape Town. Their otherworldly illustrations, and intimate depictions of womxn and other marginalized bodies push a level of intoxication and begs of its viewer to consume more of the Copic artist’s drawings.
Leal’s interest in art was kindled after their sister was gifted plasticine for her birthday. Leal pocketed the malleable play dough and built tiny deer sculptures completed with the use of stick or berry noses. “Art became my way of communicating as a dyslexic and epileptic kid with ADD who was bad at sports and school. It was kinda the only thing I was good at. In high school, I began taking my craft more seriously without really having a distinctive style or consistency which reflects my entire high school experience as a queer body in an all-girls school.”
Leal expresses that the inspiration for their work often just pops into their head. Feelings and sounds are important triggers for such moments. Their lax style sometimes references pop culture as can be seen with ‘STEVE ZISSOU’, a piece inspired by Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. “When I work on bigger pieces and there’s a lot more space for random things I tend to draw items that I would want to take with me to enhance the experience of an alien invasion/abduction like my bong and a pillow.”
Bright colours, lots of pinks. These are the predominant colours that play the part of identifying Leal’s pen flex skills. The use of pink in their work speaks to their gender identity. “Pink is a colour I strongly disassociate with because of its feminine connotations and the fact that my gender identity doesn’t really fall in line with what I used to think pink represented.” Leal has embraced the colour despite the feelings of discomfort they associate with it, believing that their choice to do so has empowered them, making their art more truthful. Leal thus uses the colour as a means to express their views in their work.
With work that is often times fixated on their girlfriend, Leal expresses that she has been their muse since they met in high school. Another topic they often explore is the various elements that they take in when skating around the streets of Cape Town. “Something really harrowing is the spatial Apartheid in Cape Town. A lot of my work is inspired by the gentrification that I’ve seen since moving to Cape Town this year. I often portray places I’ve seen in Woodstock as alien landscapes.” The way in which Leal portrays these fictional alien landscapes makes reference to how they believe that the original inhabitants of this space view their home turning into something foreign.
The meaning behind their work surfaces in pieces such as ‘DIVIDED’, a personal work exploring Leal’s gender identity as well as the separation from their true self that they experience. A split head with a pink glass box lodged in between. Within the box there is a small blue human. Leal explains that the head is split in half by thoughts as well as outside perceptions of themselves. The blue person trapped in a pink box symbolizes them. “It describes the situation I find myself in now. If there’s anything I’d hope my work can accomplish, [it] is creating work that people can relate to emotionally, especially queer people who have experienced some of the same things that I have.”
‘NEON SEX .1’ forms part of a larger body of work exploring the sex trade by referencing Japan, one of the spaces in the world where transactional sex is openly advertised. “The sex industry in Japan is flawed in the sense that there are loopholes in the law as opposed to actual legalization and this leaves too much room for human trafficking. I have referenced actual images of the neon signs outside of sex shops to display how widely accepted the illegal buying and selling of sex has become in some parts of the world.”
Leal expresses that they feel strongly about the topic and recognises sex work as a valid form of work. They tell me that they stand with many in their intention to decriminalize sex work but that they denounce human trafficking and believes that this distinction is vital. “I want people to think about sex work critically and see the difference between the agency of sex workers and the dangers in criminalising their work.”
Leal’s work commands engagement. Even if you don’t enjoy it you’ll probably look at their Instagram to see more. This is due to the alien-like forms and subject matter that come alive in their illustrations combined with unnatural skin colours. The vividness and sometimes explicit nature of the depictions are images that stay in your mind after you’ve seen them. Leal’s lax style and potent hues invite you deeper into their visual claws. Prepare to be drawn into Leal’s sensitive and intimate illustrative world.