interview: visual artist paul lewin navigates afrofuturism, caribbean folklore & femininity

August 9, 2018
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By Justine Frost, AFROPUNK contributor


With the rise of Afro-Futurism and the clear demand for representation of black people in the future, it is undeniable that the genre of science fiction is widening. However it can be tricky to incorporate futurism and simultaneously hold space for the generational role ancestors had in ensuring there was a future in the first place. Fear not because artist Paul Lewin’s work explores all of these elements, forsaking none, he tells narratives brimming with meaning, history and mystery.

The artists place of birth, Jamaica, is evident in the combination of pinks, yellows and greens, the intricate carnivalesque clothing and flower blossom alongside hummingbirds – the national bird of Jamaica, which frequents much of his work.

Lewin moved to Miami when he was five years old and currently lives and works in Oakland. Despite the distance, his connection to traditional Jamaican storytelling is strong. Caribbean folklore is a fascinating combination of African tradition that survived a brutal attempt of erasure from colonizers, fused with local mythology and the introduction of Christianity. The function of folklore was not just to entertain but also to instill resistance in its listeners.

(The Traveller, ©PaulLewin)

One of Lewin’s favourites is about Anansi, “Anansi was a tiny spider, a trickster. The stories of him were about his ability to overcome his perceived small size and trick other larger animals into doing his bidding. These stories were told to children during the times of slavery in the Caribbean as a form of educating and inspiring them on how to outwit their oppressors by using their minds. My mom told me that when she was a kid out in the country in Jamaica, every night around dusk the grandparents would gather the children around and tell them Anansi stories the same way our ancestors had done for 100’s of years.”

(Zyla, ©PaulLewin)

Lewis’s vessel for these stories remains consistent with his upbringing – black women. Against the landscape of tired stereotypical tropes of Sapphire’s, Jezebel’s and Mammy’s, Paul’s work is a refreshing breeze on a hot sticky day. The women are genuinely intergenerational, they are wise, they have a wicked sense of humor and they make kindness look like the strength it is:

“The women in my work are inspired a lot by the women in my family. I try to express the different qualities that I learned from them. They were very nurturing, strong, and had the ability to maintain a sense of humor during very difficult times. So when I start envisioning a new painting, or a story that I want to tell, there is usually a strong connection to the feminine that wants to be expressed.”

(Masara, ©PaulLewin)

The works resemble a time capsule that transports the viewer forwards and backwards simultaneously. The unique ability to incorporate so many different particularities into an image is why Lewis’s artwork so precious and in need of wider recognition.

All Black histories are multi-faceted and deeply individual making it hard to find representations which show their complexity in a landscape of science fiction, a genre traditionally known to be homogeneous, white and male. The internet and the connectivity that comes with it has brought a new era of self-initiated representations of black experience to the fore-front; begging the question of what ‘black consciousness’ could be like.

Lewis recalls having; “ a conversation at one of my art shows with someone about this exact subject. We talked about the ways that trauma and past ancestral experiences can be passed down from generation to generation and become part of the collective black consciousness. We viewed it like the Apple iCloud. A place where all people of African descent could go to access and download these experiences and express them through different forms of dance, music, art, and ritual.”

(Keeya, 2016, ©PaulLewin)

Technological advancements aid the African diaspora. Through them connection and creativity is harboured and most importantly, agency is had. For far too long experiences have been told through a distorted lens, thankfully now it’s being remedied, “Positive black representation is important to me as well. We need to tell our own stories in the way that we want them to be told.”

There is also new interest into spirituality and the common idea that it is lacking in the 21st century due to the rise in globalisation and social media. Lewin’s work helps to restores the balance and have some respite from the constant perpetual need to propel forward. His homage to lives past is akin to the pre-hispanic festival day of the dead celebrated in Mexico. Somehow seamlessly tying together the past, present and future – “The skulls in my work are about honoring the ancestors and the departed members of the community. I believe the ancestors are around us and within us at all times.”

Paul Lewin has a new show opening on Friday 5th October 2018 (6-9pm) at the Betti Ono Gallery at 1427 Broadway Oakland, C1 94612.

(Zuri, ©PaulLewin)

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