Born in Fortaleza in 1957, Leonilson studied at the Escola Pan-Americana de Arte and the Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP) in São Paulo. A participant in the generation defining exhibition, Como vai você, Geração 80? (How Are You, Generation 80?), he emerged as a seminal figure of the Brazilian contemporary art world during this decade. Over the course of his career Leonilson traveled extensively throughout Europe, and his paintings, drawings, and installations were featured in solo and group shows in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, in addition to many exhibitions held in Brazil. In 1991, the artist tested positive for HIV. This diagnosis compelled a decisive shift in his career, as Leonilson began to develop his intimate embroideries, a practice he continued until his death in 1993 at the age of 36.
Artworks by Leonilson are today included in such major public and private collections as the Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges-Pompidou; the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Barcelona; the Museu de Arte Moderna de São Paulo; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, among others.