Living in Color Exhibition by LeRoi Johnson

Rick James’ commercial success and most of his artistic success came when his brother, LeRoi Callwell Johnson, was running the business side of things.


But there’s much more to LeRoi Callwell Johnson than just his brother’s success. Already an accomplished classical guitarist and visual artist in his own right, he went on to help build his brother’s Mary Jane Productions into one of the largest minority-owned entertainment businesses in the 1980s. Managing artists including Rick James, The Mary Jane Girls, Process and the Doo Rags, Val Young, and Rick’s tour manager.


There’s no question that LeRoi will always be foremost connected with James, the funk-punk king whose sound helped define a decade in American music. 

LEROI: Living in Color

On View

Nov 11, 2022 – Mar 26, 2023
LeRoi Johnson is inspired by all he encounters in the world around him. Describing his work as “electric primitive,” his vibrant compositions are internalized and abstracted reflections on personal experiences. With an international artistic presence, Johnson’s influences span across continents. Central to his work are bold, bright colors as well as African, Caribbean, and South American cultural influences depicting dreams, visions, African ancestry, and various otherworldly elements. As a close friend of internationally acclaimed Brazilian artist Abdias do Nascimento, the two shared an interest in African-influenced art and are considered pioneers of Buffalo, New York’s Afro-Brazilian school of art. Johnson’s work embraces a unique viewpoint based on his experience as a Black American. He engages with multiple perspectives of identity, social justice, and narrative, blurring the lines between the real and the surreal.

Although Johnson’s artwork has been highlighted in group shows and art fairs internationally, LEROI: Living in Color reframes the attention given to Johnson in a global context through a localized and collaborative curatorial position as the artist’s first retrospective exhibition.

Fostering a spirit of connection-building, this exhibition creates a dialogue across communities by incorporating an innovative partnership with other local organizations. Students from The Buffalo Center for Art and Technology, Squeaky Wheel Film and Media Art Center, Just Buffalo Literary Center, and the Buffalo Public Schools worked with Johnson to create multimedia compositions that support the exhibition’s central themes. Through a series of culturally enriching experiences and engagements with Johnson, they created work that incorporates their own experiences and artistic interests. Engaging the next generation of artists, arts administrators, and enthusiasts transformed them from passive viewers to active participants in shaping the exhibition. This collective approach transforms our thoughts about exhibitions, collaboration, and community. It also amplifies the youth’s voice to bring their own meaning and connections through art.

LEROI: Living in Color is made possible through the generous support of our presenting sponsor, M&T Bank.

Buffalo New York Mayor Byron Brown with LeRoi Johnson at his opening night at the Burchfield Penny Arts Center photos by Cheryl Gorski

For their leadership support, we gratefully acknowledge Erie County Legislator April N. M. Baskin; Mayor Byron W. Brown & the City of Buffalo; Buffalo Common Council Members Bryan Bollman, Joel P. Feroleto, Joseph Golombek, Jr., Mitch Nowakowski, Darius G. Pridgen, David A. Rivera, Christopher Scanlon, Ulysees O. Wingo, Sr., and Rasheed Wyatt; The Cameron & Jane Baird Foundation; the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo; The John R. Oishei Foundation; NYS Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes; County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz & the County of Erie; Senator Sean M. Ryan; the Tower Family Fund; and The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation.

Our thanks also to Wayne & Mary Bacon, A. Laurie Brosnahan, Gary & Willow Brost, Ilene & Peter Fleischmann, John J. & Maureen O. Hurley, Independent Health, Pamela Jacobs Vogt, Senator Timothy M. Kennedy, Cindy & Francis Letro, Lipsitz Greene Scime Cambria LLP, Beverly & Frank LoTempio, Anthony & Kate Masiello, and Kevin W. Spitler for their additional support.

The Center would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to SUNY Trustee Eunice A Lewin, Exhibition Liaison, for her tireless commitment and dedication to our fundraising efforts. Our sincere gratitude also goes out to Buffalo State College and our generous Burchfield Penney Members.


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