Across October, the UK celebrates Black History Month to recognise and promote the history, culture and contributions of black people to British society.
It provides an opportunity to educate local communities about the oppression and achievements of black people across generations, as well as the chance to confront the realities of racism in the UK today.
In light of the global Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, which sparked discussions about the injustices in our own capital, it has never been so important.
One exhibition in support of Black History Month is being held this week at the OXO Tower Wharf, showcasing the artwork of a London finance trader who has turned to art to promote awareness of black communities and their struggles.
Xavier Leopold, known artistically as Xavi Art, isn’t an old hand of the artworld but found the pandemic to be the perfect opportunity to start his journey into abstract portraiture and cubism.
“I only started painting at the start of lockdown,” Xavier told MyLondon.
“I never painted before, but lockdown and working from home really helped me channel my energy, my thoughts, emotions and experience on a canvas.
“I’m a trader by profession, so in terms of art’s creativity, there’s not much room to do that.
“When the world slows down, I’m able to speed up my passion, and it had always been a point of therapy for me since there’s not much else to do.”
In his current exhibition, Xavier uses his artworks to explore issues of social justice and mental health, while drawing upon his own lived experience as a black man living in London.
Touching on the Black Lives Matter protests, historical black icons, and portraits of black figures, his artworks are intended to send messages of black pride and empowerment.
“This year in particular we’ve seen, alongside the downsides of social injustice, an uptick in awareness,” said Xavier.
“I think it’s important to not only empower black people but the wider world about the strength of a black person.”
Talking about the broad messaging of his artwork, he adds: “If I can use it as a platform to reach out to a community, to reach out to an individual, or someone who might need it later on, then I’m satisfied – that’s my goal.”
One of Xavier’s pieces features the late Chadwick Boseman in his iconic Black Panther suit, as a celebration of the actor’s role in supporting black identity and self-perception.
“He did so much and was so selfless,” Xavier said about his painting of Boseman.
“Although the Black Panther character had been around for many years, he played a very important part for, not only myself, but the next generation to have someone of brown skin colour seen as a hero.”
“I’m a massive Superman and Batman fan, but there’s something very different about seeing somebody of your own skin colour put in an iconic light.”
His pieces with less overtly political subjects still carry messages that illustrate Xavier’s principles and, he hopes, will inspire vulnerable individuals to persevere through their struggles.
‘Einstein’ was his first non-portraiture piece and features a lone brain with a pair of eyes stuck on its frontal lobe, which Xavier created to reflect the mental health struggles that so often dominate black communities.
“I personally had experience with mental health issues in the past from traumas I’d gone through and pressures in the world of finance, and all of these things over time have a snowball effect,” Xavier said.
He added: “I thought that regardless of what anybody’s going through, don’t let that limit your capabilities. We’re all geniuses in our own way and we just need to tap into it.
“The idea of the naming ‘Einstein’ is the fact that Einstein only had one brain – he had the same brain as in all of us.
“Let’s strip away the idea of material, clothing, obstacles – we all have the same brain, just like Einstein.”
Xavier’s self-taught style draws heavily on Western cubist greats like Picasso and Matisse, but is also influenced by the traditional African art with which he became familiar in his childhood.
“If you look around at African art or sculpture you can see cubism, so growing up in an African-Caribbean household you indirectly see cubist style,” he says.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m attracted to it myself.”
Looking to the future, Xavier said he wants to continue advocating for black awareness and community justice within his work, as well as developing a platform that can inspire the younger generation.
“They’re going to be the ones running the world when we’re all in our zimmer frames,” he says.
“They need more guidance than ever.”
The Xavi Art Exhibition is open to the public all week between 11am and 6pm until Sunday, October 25, at the OXO Tower Wharf.